• D.C.
  • BXL
  • Lagos
  • Dubai
  • Beijing
  • SG
rotating globe
  • D.C.
  • BXL
  • Lagos
Semafor Logo
  • Dubai
  • Beijing
  • SG

Grid officials say the situation is more perilous than last year, but onshore wind is making the gri͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
cloudy Kyiv
sunny Harare
cloudy Washington, D.C.
rotating globe
October 27, 2023

Net Zero

Sign up for our free newsletters
Tim McDonnell
Tim McDonnell

Hi everyone, welcome back to Net Zero.

As some readers may know, I’m based in Kyiv (where my wife is a correspondent on the award-winning Washington Post team). While the war is still raging along Ukraine’s eastern and southern front lines, the last couple of weeks have been relatively quiet here in the capital, without the air raid sirens we’re used to hearing every day. The prevailing assumption is that this is not a good thing — that Russia is saving its long-range missiles and drones for a barrage on energy infrastructure once temperatures drop, as it did last winter. Everyone is bracing for cold and dark, and stocking up on generators and home batteries. In our story today, a top Ukrainian energy executive lays out why, despite hundreds of millions of dollars invested since last year in infrastructure restoration and protection — including a brand-new onshore wind farm — he’s still deeply concerned about the months ahead.

Also today: We hear some opposing views on climate action from Congress, and chase emissions from buildings and semi trucks.

If you like what you’re reading, spread the word.

  1. Along for the EV ride
  2. Solar gap
  3. Bracing for winter
  4. New speaker, new cuts
  5. Seeing REDD
  6. ‘A non-starter’
  7. Deadly weather
  8. Made to measure

Along for the EV ride

REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

Ford and the United Auto Workers union reached a tentative deal to end a six-week strike. The deal includes some wins for the union, alleviates some of the main concerns workers had about the electric vehicle transition, and puts pressure on General Motors and Stellantis, whose workers are still on strike, to follow suit. In addition to a pay raise, Ford workers won the right to strike over plant closures, which they previously didn’t have, and the elimination of lower wage tiers for parts factories that are slated to manufacture components for EVs. Of the agreement, which still needs a final vote of approval from the union’s members, Ellen Hughes-Cromwick, former chief economist at Ford and a senior fellow at the think tank Third Way, told Semafor: “I think we can take this contract as a commitment to bring union workers along for the EV transition.”


China’s solar ambitions

Despite being the world’s largest renewable energy market, China is adding solar power too slowly for the world to reach net zero by midcentury, according to the International Energy Agency.

China’s solar market is years ahead of schedule to hit the country’s 2030 deployment targets. But that target is too weak, the IEA warned. Greater investment in the grid and in utility-scale storage, and regulatory reforms to create a unified national power market, would help speed solar in China even more. In better news, Chinese officials said this week they’re prepared to release a long-awaited plan to cut methane emissions, the world’s largest. And one of the country’s top climate diplomats said China plans to push Western countries to pay more for climate aid at COP28, warning that “empty slogans…harm the multilateral process.”


Ukrainians brace for another cold, dark winter

Tim McDonnell
Tim McDonnell
A Ukrainian power station damaged by Russian missile attacks.
Courtesy DTEK


As temperatures begin to fall in Ukraine, residents are braced for a second winter of blackouts and heat cutoffs. The air raid sirens in Kyiv have been relatively quiet in the last few weeks, but officials expect that to change as Russia resumes its targeted shelling of power plants and other energy infrastructure.

“The coming winter will definitely not be easier than the last one,” Dmytro Sakharuk, executive director of DTEK, the country’s largest private energy generation and distribution company, told Semafor. “Because unfortunately, we are not the only ones preparing for it — the Russians are too.”


Targeting civilian power infrastructure during winter is one of the surest methods Russia’s military has to sap Ukrainians’ morale, as it did to devastating effect last year. In the last week alone, thousands of families in southern and eastern Ukraine near regions still occupied by Russia temporarily lost power because of Russian strikes.

DTEK and other energy companies have been working overtime to repair damaged facilities, stockpile equipment, and build new renewable energy that, in addition to reducing the grid’s carbon intensity, are more resilient to airstrikes. Still, the energy system remains one of Ukraine’s greatest vulnerabilities, especially since much of it dates to the Soviet era — meaning Russia knows the layout intimately, and that spare parts for aging facilities are chronically in short supply.

Prior to Russia’s full-scale invasion last February, Ukraine had enough spare electricity to export some to the European Union. Since then, several large power plants have been captured, including the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant and a large onshore wind farm, which remain under Russian control, or destroyed, like the Kakhovka Dam hydroelectric plant. Altogether, nearly 9,000 energy assets, including transformers and transmission lines, have been damaged or destroyed, at a value of about $11 billion, according to DTEK, and the country’s generation capacity is half its pre-war level. The firm has also seen 240 employees killed and 700 injured.

DTEK is racing to rebuild and fortify its infrastructure. The company has spent $41 million on spare equipment, and has installed sandbags and concrete blocks around most of its facilities. This year it doubled its investment in coal mining and purchasing from 2022 levels, spending $200 million, and tripled the pace of natural gas drilling. In May, it also opened a 114-megawatt onshore wind farm near the Black Sea, just 60 miles from the front line — renewable energy, Sakharuk said, has the advantage of being harder to take out in a single strike, since it’s distributed across a larger area than a fossil power plant. And this month Ukraine secured $522 million from the U.S. for energy infrastructure security and a shipment of solar panels donated by Japan, while increasing natural gas imports from the EU seven-fold.

But all of that preparation is essentially useless, Sakharuk said, if Russian drones and missiles continue to find their targets. Keeping the lights and heat on is ultimately a job for Ukraine’s military, which has been developing ways to stretch its limited supply of air defense weapons, including by converting U.S.-supplied air-to-air Sidewinder missiles into surface-to-air missiles in order to defend energy infrastructure, according to the Financial Times.

“The key is air defense,” Torsten Woellert, an energy official in the EU delegation to Ukraine, told Semafor. “If the air defense works, the energy will be secure. If it doesn’t, it won’t be.”

The weather could work in Ukraine's favor — but badly-enforced sanctions are working against it. →


New speaker, new cuts

Cuts to Inflation Reduction Act clean energy programs proposed in the first piece of legislation to pass the House of Representatives under newly-elected Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA). Johnson, whose district includes the oil and gas hub of Shreveport and whose top campaign contributors are from that industry, has consistently voted against climate legislation during his seven years in Congress, and denied a connection between CO2 emissions and global warming. The measures targeted in the new legislation support energy efficiency upgrades for homeowners. While virtually certain not to pass the Senate, the bill shows that Congress still has difficult negotiations in the next three weeks to avert a government shutdown.


Seeing REDD

The global carbon credit market is contracting, and getting higher-quality — by a hair.

An analysis of global carbon credit trading this week by the carbon management firm Carbon Direct identified two interesting trends. One is that carbon credit purchases (“retirements”) are declining, which the report attributes mostly to “reputational backlash” — i.e., the repeated, highly public calling-out of dubious offsetting projects. One such project, which derived carbon credits from forestry projects in Zimbabwe and was excoriated in recent investigations in Bloomberg and the New Yorker, fell apart on Friday as the company selling the credits terminated its contract with the project developer. The other trend Carbon Direct spotted was that although forestry and renewable energy-related credits — both of which are prone to the criticism of not being truly “additional” — still account for 90% of the market, purchases of high-quality carbon removal credits have jumped five-fold since 2021.


One Good Text

Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-NY)


Deadly weather

Jeronimo Gonzalez
Jeronimo Gonzalez
REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori


Extreme weather has killed at least 15,000 people in Africa so far in 2023, new analysis by Carbon Brief shows.

Global warming combined with El Niño, a warm-weather pattern that is devastating crops globally, could further threaten swaths of the continent where food insecurity is rampant.


  • The death toll in Africa is dominated by the 11,300 who died in September’s devastating floods in Libya, but floods also hit 22 other countries in the region, killing a further 3,000 in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Many millions more have been affected by drought, wildfires, and heat waves, Carbon Brief reported. The true toll is undoubtedly higher: Africa has the lowest density of climate-monitoring stations of any continent.
  • As the frequency and severity of extreme weather events increases due to global warming, developing nations are likely to suffer the highest toll. According to the World Meteorological Organization, nine in 10 deaths and 60% of the economic losses related to the 12,000 extreme weather events between 1970 and 2021 occurred in developing countries. “The most vulnerable communities unfortunately bear the brunt of weather, climate and water-related hazards,” the WMO head said.
  • Despite decades-long advances in forecasting technologies, storms remain dangerously unpredictable, Science reported, a point which was made evident this week as Hurricane Otis struck Mexico’s Pacific coast. The region was caught in a “nightmare scenario,” the U.S. National Hurricane Center said, as a forecast tropical storm strengthened at an extraordinarily fast rate to a Category Five hurricane, leading to widespread devastation and at least 27 deaths.

Green Shoots

Thalo Labs' emissions monitoring device is the white box in the lower right, attached to a boiler in a large New York City building.
Courtesy Thalo Labs

There’s a gaping data hole at the heart of the energy transition: How much CO2 does the global economy actually produce? Economists have pretty good methods to arrive at high-level estimates, and some types of facilities, like power plants, are often equipped with monitoring devices. But for many types of sources there hasn’t been a way to measure emissions on an individual level. That’s becoming a bigger problem as regulators and tax officials start to mandate reductions and put a price on emissions. Imagine two skyscrapers, or two steel factories. The owner of one has invested deeply in energy efficiency and electrification. The other hasn’t. If a third party wants to know their emissions, and can only make a ballpark estimate using a generic average for that type of facility, the leader won’t get enough credit for their investments, and the laggard may get too much.

A growing number of startups are devising hardware and software to solve that problem. On Wednesday, the NASDAQ opening bell was rung by the CEO of Spectaire, a startup that went public last week and builds emissions-monitoring widgets that attach to the tailpipes of semi trucks. “People are sick of promises without proof,” Chris Grossman, the company’s COO, said. Direct emissions measuring gives lower-carbon trucking companies a marketing edge, he said.

New York startup Thalo Labs has a similar technology, but tailored for the fossil energy consumed in large buildings, for example by large industrial boilers. Tracking the emissions from individual pieces of hardware allows building owners to “be much more surgical with their decarbonization dollars,” founder Brendan Hermalyn said, as it helps identify which specific assets are emitting the most. And it saves building owners money by identifying where energy is being wasted.

“This fruit is so low-hanging, it’s on the floor,” Hermalyn said. “We need to go after everything with a tailpipe and every building in the world.”

Hot on Semafor
  • The AI boom’s chip shortage has an unlikely hero: the blockchain.
  • How does a Democrat win in Mississippi? Brandon Presley thinks he’s found the formula.
  • Business leaders are keeping a low profile regarding the new Middle East conflict after a decade of public CEO statements on hot-button issues.