Chicken little forecast

Still Chugging Along

Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.

Climate Capital and a Green Tech Future

Featuring Jigar Shah

Will the green transition happen, and how far do we have to go? Jigar Shah, the director of the Loan Programs Office in the US Department of Energy, shares his insights into the current landscape, future potential, and challenges for the successful commercial deployment of critical clean energy technologies.

Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript

Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, and I’m joined by my co-host, Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. And this is our podcast, What Could Go Right?, which focuses on, yep, what could go right, given that we are so focused in our world today on everything that is and could go wrong. And one of the things that has been certainly on the top of many people’s minds about what’s going wrong is what’s going on with climate and energy and the continual challenges of making a transition away from a carbon-based economy toward a more renewable, sustainable-based economy, energy sustainable-based economy.

Emma Varvaloucas (EV): Today we’re talking to Jigar Shah who’s the director of the Loan Office at the US Department of Energy. And if you’re not sure what they do there, we are going to go over that. He was also the co-founder and served as president of Generate Capital, which focused on accelerating the adoption of decarbonization solutions. If that’s not enough, he also founded SunEdison, which was pioneer and continues to be in the solar energy space. He was also the founding CEO of something called the Carbon War Room, which is a global nonprofit founded by Sir Richard Branson and Virgin Unite to help entrepreneurs tackle climate change.

ZK: Let us talk to Jigar Shah.

EV: Let’s do it.

ZK: Jigar Shah, it is a pleasure to have you join us today for What Could Go Right? There’s no denying the challenges of a carbon-based economy. There’s no denying the challenges of transitioning to a less carbon intensive economy. But rather than wringing one’s proverbial hands and warning of imminent doom and planetary collapse, your work and now your current work seems to be motivated primarily by a passion for, there’s a lot that is getting done that ameliorates, there’s a lot about technology and science that doesn’t have to be techno utopian, but can actually be pragmatic solutions and that we best get on doing that. So I guess my question is how has your perspective on that shifted from being largely in the private sector, albeit with strong views about policy, to now being in the public sector, albeit in an unusual position in the public sector in that you’re not the kid in the candy shop, you are in fact the candy shop?

Jigar Shah (JS): [laughs] Man, it’s pretty awesome to be at the candy shop. Well, first, thanks for having me on. You know, look, I think that, I’m driven by sort of Anna in Frozen 2 where she is like, you just have to do the next right thing. I think in general there’s a lot of people who think that technology will set you free, and in fact it’s really execution that sets you free. When you look at all the things that we use, they’re not necessarily the technology that had the highest score in some competition out of engineering school. It’s the one that folks were able to mass manufacture at scale. They were the ones that you were able to get out the door. And a lot of that is driven by entrepreneurs and growth companies. And so whether it’s Elon Musk and Tesla that we gave a loan to back in 2009, or whether it’s the folks who did the first 500 megawatt solar farms.

And so I think part of my coming into the Department of Energy has been a recognition that it’s not really just about the person that has the best technology score, but it’s also the person who basically is willing to break through walls to get their technology to the masses. And I think that that perspective is something that I can uniquely bring, I think, into the government. And frankly, I think it’s working. There’s a lot of people within the government who are like, yeah, we want America to dominate these sectors. We want our companies to have that kind of success. And we wanna replicate the success we’ve had in solar, wind, lithium-ion battery storage and EVs to these other 12 or 14 sectors. And I think my background has been a unique bridge-building exercise between the growth companies who are generally sort of libertarian in nature to the government who has these resources that can help them.

EV: So, Jigar, being the man with the execution plan right now, it’s really fun talking to you ’cause I feel like it’s a great chance to ask about the inside look about how this execution from the government side of things actually happens. So could you give us a day in the life, so to speak, of what the Loan Program Office is doing? What’s the budget? How do you decide what’s a yes or no? Just also a general picture of what’s happening because I’m not sure if everyone listening to the podcast is gonna know.

JS: Yeah. It’s one of those things that I think folks just use infrastructure every day but don’t quite know how it gets built [laughs] you know?

EV: Right.

JS: I think the first thing we had to do at the Loan Programs Office when we came in, ’cause remember, the secretary called us dormant, I think, in her confirmation hearing, so we were largely dormant when we came in, was really just do reach outs. So I think the first three months, I think we just called every growth company that I could think of that could qualify for Loan Programs Office and say, hey, I know that you have never heard of us and probably never thought to use us, but you qualify. So I felt like the Publisher Clearing House guy. And that was great.

But you can imagine that once we get them to qualify and we’ve got about, I don’t know, we got several dozen people in our outreach and business development team that help coach and mentor a lot of these companies, ’cause you can imagine interacting with a government program is scary for a lot of these companies, then they have to actually do the work. They have to put in several hundred hours’ worth of work and put together an application that might be hundreds of pages. Because remember, the average loan that we are evaluating is about a billion dollars. That’s the loan. And so the projects could be $2 billion. And so, I mean, with a $2 billion project, you would expect a lot of detail and due diligence to come in. And for a lot of these companies, they have been able to raise money just by selling a dream. They’ve been able to go and go to a venture capitalist and say, here’s my 40-slide deck and look how awesome I am and look at all the good press I’ve gotten, and they’ve been able to get a check.

A lot of these venture capitalists don’t due diligence on these companies before writing them a check. So they’re like, what? I have to go through a 9 to 12 month due diligence process? I have to answer like hundreds of questions from your people? That seems excessive. Why don’t you just write me a check? And I was like no, that’s not how it works. I mean, even if I wasn’t the government and I was at JP Morgan, I would still ask you lots of questions before giving you a billion dollar loan. And so we leverage the 10,000 engineers, scientists, and experts on our platform. So when a loan application comes in, we’re like, oh, that’s really interesting. We have a group in Sandia National Laboratories or Argonne or Lawrence Berkeley that has been doing this for 20 years. What do they think about this technology and their approach? And most of the time, that person will say, actually, I was the original patent holder of that technology, and here’s the 18 times we tested it, and here’s why I think this will work.

And so we have these teams of people within LPO. So you have outreach and business development, you’ve got origination, which is the underwriting team, the group that you would think about as actually processing the loan, you have a technical team, who has to opine on whether they think this approach will even work, and then a few other teams like legal and risk and portfolio management. And so that’s sort of a day in the life. And right now we’ve got 177 active applications that we’re processing through the program, and about 30 of them have been put into full due diligence, and so we’re underwriting those 30.

ZK: So, Jigar, will you give us an example of a couple of recent projects?

JS: Yeah. So I mean, one of the deals that we recently provided a conditional commitment to is a company called Eos, which is a company that has been through hell and back getting their technology up to speed. These are, you know, zinc-based batteries, and they’re what you call long duration energy storage. So you can imagine most people are using lithium-ion batteries, but these guys are using a zinc-based chemistry, which has no critical minerals. So all of their materials are easy to get, pretty cost effective. But you can imagine they don’t have a gigafactory yet, so their stuff is probably four times more expensive than you need to be, right? So you need to do full automation. You’ve gotta really grow the company up and get to higher volumes. And so we provided a conditional commitment to them.

They’re out of Pittsburgh and they are the quintessential company that needs to use us where there are a lot of folks who are worried, does the technology work? Does it really have a pathway to reducing cost? Is there really a place for them? A lot of solar and wind companies are only using two hours of battery storage. Are people gonna need 6 to 10 hours of battery storage? And we did all the fundamental work. We hired market advisors, we looked at the technology, looked at the cost curve, looked at what they’re suggesting on automation and how much cost reduction was possible. And so when we gave them a conditional commitment, their life changed, because people said, look, the Department of Energy actually evaluated all their claims and actually believe that it’s possible to actually succeed in what they’re trying to do. And that really quieted a lot of the critics and allowed them to now focus on execution, which has been extraordinary for them. And we’ll see whether they succeed or fail. Several of our projects are gonna fail based on their ability to execute. But I think DOE was able to come in and actually settle a lot of these disputes and make sure that they had a fighting chance to succeed.

EV: We’ll be right back after this break.

Welcome back to What Could Go Right?

So, Jigar, I’m gonna ask a really broad question about the US climate transition as a whole. I think the narrative that, as a layperson, people are used to hearing is we would go for the climate transition if not for the political impediments and the technological impediments. Now that we’re actually talking about execution, how much has the narrative changed? How much has the reality changed on the ground? Like how much do we need to update people about what the impediments are now and what actually is happening right now when it comes to the climate transition in the States?

JS: Yeah, I think people definitely talk a lot about this sort of 30,000 foot level stuff on climate. When I think what the most people want, as Emory Levin said a long time ago, is cold beer. They don’t want an energy efficient refrigerator. They want a refrigerator that actually keeps their beer cold. And we have a lot of technologies that do that really efficiently today. And so, for instance, 6% of all American households have a backup generator. 4% of all American households have solar plus battery storage. A lot of people are choosing solar plus battery storage today because a generator has no payback. You just pay and pay and pay and pay, where a solar system, like with a battery, actually has a payback. Now, it may be slightly longer than you would want, like maybe you want a four-year payback and it’s an eight-year payback. But a generator is just, you put $9,000 out, then you put $500 out a year every single year to have it inspected. And if you ever use it, you have to refill the diesel or pay for the natural gas.

So, in general, the solutions that we’re talking about here that happen to be climate solutions are just better for your life. I love the fact that I can recharge my electric vehicle at home. I don’t need to go to a gas station. And so that’s awesome. So there’s a lot of people who do these things not because it’s for the climate or it’s because of reducing their carbon footprint, they’re doing this because these are vastly superior technologies. Today you’ve got smart water heaters where if you go on vacation, you can push a button on an app on your phone to put it into vacation mode so you’re not keeping water hot while you’re on vacation. That’s cool, right? And then it happens to be that that same feature lets you participate in what we call a virtual power plant, where now you can let the utility choose to control your water heater and they pay you a lot of money every month to do that. And so if you want to get access to that money, you can opt in now that you have this app. And so do I want everyone to get super wonky on virtual power plants? No, but if you wanna get paid 10 bucks a month, you can hit a button on your app.

ZK: One of the members of The Progress Network is Jason Bordoff, who had been an energy advisor in the Obama administration, runs an energy institute. And one of his points is that the either/or between renewables versus carbon fuels is a false dichotomy given the world that we’re living in. We’re not gonna really decarbonize in the next 20 years globally. We may increase the amount of renewables that are part of the mix, but we’re also gonna have lots of the world that needs to use the coal they have or the oil they have ’cause there’s no current alternative, even if there’s a long-term alternative. What do you say about the mix between pragmatism and idealism around these questions?

JS: So it is obviously true that there’s a lot of people who currently own vehicles that burn gasoline. And so they expect to have gasoline at the gas pump when they go there to fill it up. That’s obviously true. There’s also a lot of people who obviously have a natural gas heating system that they expect to have natural gas flowing through those pipes to actually make sure that they can be heated in the winter. But it’s also the case that this pragmatism that has this thing where it’s like, well, things happen on their own timeframe, is patently false. This is why we’re in the mess that we’re in today. We should have been working harder on this 13 years ago, but we didn’t. We had this crazy pragmatism. Now, we’re intentionally figuring things out.

For instance, my office is at the center of getting the best nuclear designs in the world into the marketplace. We forgot to do that for the last 13 years. So now we’re 13 years behind. We’re there now. We are going to build 200 gigawatts of nuclear power in this country and we’re gonna export it around the world to help people get off of coal. I wish we would’ve done it 13 years ago, but the people that were there 13 years ago didn’t wanna do it. Well, we’re doing it now. The same thing’s true for clean hydrogen. The same thing’s true for next generation transmission. We have the best technology in the world. It is superior to what we’re using now, and we should be dominating by installing those technologies here in this country, and then we should exporting it to our allies around the world to help them decarbonize their countries.

I do think that some of this excessive pragmatism stuff goes too far. People are like, well, I don’t know. They have coal, they should burn it. Really? They have coal, they should burn it? Yeah. We didn’t run out of stones when we got out of the Stone Age, people just found a superior product to roll things around on. We have superior products. We should introduce them to people who burn coal and say, you should burn this instead. Like you should use uranium instead of using coal. And we’ve done that now. Poland is replicating the AP1000 in Poland. They’re also deciding to use the BWRX-300 from General Electric, which is a US technology, for their next phase.

Audio Clip: Introducing the Westinghouse AP300 Small Modular Reactor, the only SMR based on a deployed operating and advanced nuclear reactor.

JS: I just think that some of that thinking is patently lazy. We have extraordinary technology and we need to be more muscular on commercializing it.

EV: I mean, I think the question that comes from that is, we should have been doing this 13 years ago, as you’re saying, we’re finally doing this now, what happens if there’s a federal administration turnover? Do we just stop doing it, or is it like the money is out there, the tech is out there, it’s kind of sort of baked into the system?

JS: Yeah, it’s a false argument. When you look at the Trump administration, they didn’t roll back almost anything. It’s not like they stopped all the solar and wind tax credits. They didn’t figure out a way to ban solar power on people’s homes or electric vehicles battery manufacturing, right? All of those things kept going. Why? Because Americans are amazing at it.

And guess what? There are lots of Republicans who invest in these technologies too. One of the largest investors in battery chemistries in the country right now are the Koch brothers. And so I just think that in general, there’s a lot of these political articles and podcasts and other things that come out. But when you look at the underlying investment, some of the largest investors in carbon sequestration and storage technologies are the oil and gas industry. They don’t want that to go away. Some of the largest investors in battery technologies are large Republican donors. And so most of the factories that are being announced today are being announced in districts that have elected Republicans. And those folks are at the ribbon cuttings and they want those jobs to be created.

So I get the rhetoric and I’m not turning that sound off, like I understand it, I hear it. But when you look at what we really wanna do as Americans is we want to have our technology commercialized here. For decades, we sent it to China on purpose for them to commercialize it. I think there’s bipartisan support not to have it commercialized there, but instead to commercialize it here by tying it to the American worker.

ZK: It’s also true under the Trump administration, while the rhetoric was drill, baby, drill and deregulate some of the rules around offshore drilling for oil, there wasn’t really an appreciable change in the amount of drilling ’cause there wasn’t really an economic incentive to do so. So there was the rhetoric of it, which was seized on as proof positive. But as you point out on the solar side, it was also true on the carbon side. The coal industry kept shrinking and the oil industry didn’t drill as much ’cause there was no good reason for it, right? These were not competitive sources of energy [inaudible].

JS: Yeah, I think just to reinforce your point, I mean there were proactive steps that they took to try to support the coal industry and the industrial consumers didn’t want it ’cause they said, we don’t wanna pay higher prices for electricity. We don’t want you to make those changes. So I just think that progress is happening, and it’s happening in ways that I think people are just not fathoming.

I’ll give you an example. There’s this obscure organization which is super important called ASTM, and they basically set the standards for things like cement. For years, they resisted changing the cement standard away from just portland cement. They just changed the standard to allow for all these more innovative cement formulations to be legal and to get out there. And we have the best technologies in the world to do that. In order to change that standard, all 160 members of that committee have to unanimously agree to the new standard, and they just did. And so it is extraordinary to me how much progress we’re making on clean steel, clean cement, clean chemicals, all these places. It’s hard to see because some of these obscure groups are the ones who control whether you could do it or not, but it’s extraordinary to see how much progress we’re making.

ZK: So what do you say to the critics on the left who say nuclear energy is bad, we don’t want any of that, which is still pretty prominent. And even for battery factories. We want more batteries ’cause batteries are good, but there’s huge environmental objections when you try to open a lithium mine or something. So even there, what do you do about the pragmatism on that side of the equation?

JS: You need to be able to have all these modern infrastructure sources. And that means you have to make decisions. Nuclear power is the single largest source of clean electricity in the United States. It’s probably the single largest source next to hydro of clean electricity in the world. If we’re going to get off of coal, we need nuclear power. I mean, there’s nobody who’s a bigger fan of solar power in the entire world than me. That’s where I’ve made my fortune. I get it. And I think solar power has a lot more room to run, but we are not gonna power the entire world 100% at solar power. That is definitely not gonna happen. We need a diversity of sources. We need enhanced geothermal. We need to make sure that low impact hydro, you know, we are still using turbines that were built in the 1930s. They need to be upgraded. I mean, I get the fact they’ve lasted a long time. It’s like when you have a Kenmore appliance and you’re like, that thing’s been working for 25 years. You’re like, you know how much electricity that thing uses? If you replaced it, it would pay itself back in two years [laughs]. And so you’re like, modern, move on, this has better features. And so look, I say the same thing to the environmental community.

EV: I did some coverage I think in August, which was a year out from the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, I was really surprised that the research basically guesstimated that the US was on track for a certain amount of drop in emissions, and the IRA pushed it an additional 10%. That’s what they guessed, or not guess, that’s what they estimate. And to be honest, I thought that was gonna be a lot bigger. I was like, wow, this is a lot of money going out for a reduction that they’re thinking it’s only gonna be 10%. So I guess my question is like, was this transition gonna be chugging along by itself anyway, or like how necessary was the government supercharging with the loans?

JS: Yeah. So there’s two pieces to this, and I think it’s important to recognize both. On the one hand, as we just discussed, these solutions are superior to what they’re replacing. So a lot of people are choosing to replace them because they want a fully featured appliance that has the ability to control it from an app on your phone or they want an electric vehicle because they just think it’s cooler and their kid keeps yelling at them about burning gasoline. Whatever it is that they want. They were gonna do that.

The question becomes, should the government be involved in making that transition cheaper for people so that it’s not just the top 50% of earners in this country that can benefit from it, but it’s also the other folks in this country that want to benefit from it, right? And so the IRA does a lot of incentives to make sure that all Americans can access these new technologies. And yeah, maybe some of that would’ve happened otherwise, but I still think it’s a good thing that the government got involved to make sure that all Americans could take advantage of these new technologies ’cause all Americans wanna take advantage of the new technologies. So that I think is the more expensive part of what you’re talking about for the IRA.

I think the less expensive part of the IRA are the parts that cover this bridge to bankability. We now have a proven approach to reducing the cost of solar, wind, lithium-ion batteries. And it turns out that you basically need to attract a hundred billion dollars of private sector capital to get a technology from ready to go to across the bridge of bankability and cheap. So that means building the first of a kind facility, getting the contractors to learn how to do it so they can build units second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth. Then doing the learning curve that we’ve all learned about now, where the cost goes down with more deployment, and then getting Wall Street acceptance is sort of the fourth pillar. And that’s how you get really cheap money to go into it.

And so we have about 15 technologies that need to get across that bridge to bankability. So if each one’s $100 billion, that’s like $1.5 trillion of investment that the government needs to provide a lot of help in the beginning and less and less help over that bridge to get folks all the way across that bridge. But it’s critical because you can’t expect countries in the global south to pay for that commercialization. We’re gonna pay for it and we’re gonna tie it to the American worker. And once we get those technologies across that bridge, then we’re gonna export it to our friends in India or South Africa or Brazil or other places that need to decarbonize as well. So those two pieces, one is to make these technologies that people were gonna buy anyway more affordable for all Americans, and the other piece of it is to get these next 15 technology sectors across that bridge to bankability.

EV: Can you give us an example or just give us a range of what those 15 are so people have an idea in their heads what you’re talking about?

JS: So we’ve talked about some already. So nuclear power is clearly one of them, enhanced geothermal. So today enhanced geothermal basically uses modern hydraulic fracturing technology but for geothermal, but it’s over $100 a megawatt hour today, and it needs to get down to about half of that, to probably $50 or $60 a megawatt hour. Next is low impact hydro. There’s a lot of new fish-friendly designs that are ready to go, frankly, that have been ready to go for 15 years, but we’ve never bought enough to really get the cost down and really get it deployed, and so there’s that one. There’s virtual power plants. Like if you’ve got this modern water heater, why can’t it be used by the grid instead of a natural gas peaker plant? They can control when your water heater turns on because you don’t really care after you finish taking a shower when the water heater turns on as long as it’s warm by the next morning.

But then there’s next generation battery chemistry technologies. So it’s not just lithium-ion, but there’s a lot of technologies that use a lot less critical minerals. There’s carbon sequestration and storage, which is a really critical way for us to be able to meet our 2035 and 2050 goals for climate. We talked a little bit about hydrogen, and there’s many pathways there, from electrolyzers to blue hydrogen to pink hydrogen, so many colors of the rainbow in the hydrogen space. And I can go on, there’s other technologies for reducing the cost of fuel for ships, so ships have to reduce their carbon footprint and figuring that out. And then we’ve got technologies around sustainable aviation fuel for airplanes. And so there’s a lot of different technologies, most of which we’ve been researching for the better part of 45 years, and they’re ready for primetime.

EV: So let’s say X number of years from now, and if you could fill out what year that would be, maybe, and we’ve dunked the ball, can you paint a vision of how much better my life is as an American because of all this? I don’t actually live in the States, so it doesn’t apply to me. I’m in Greece, so whatever happens in the US is gonna be—

JS: I think it applies to you, to Greece.

EV: It applies at a slower pace.

JS: [laughs]

EV: But I do have solar panels that heats my water, so we’re gonna take that success. I just think like one thing that has really been missing in the climate discussion generally is the selling point of, as you were saying before, if we don’t wanna be camping for the rest of our lives, this is gonna be how awesome your life is when we make this climate transition. And it’s one thing to have all the tech going out there, like EVs and stuff, but if the uptake isn’t there, it’s not gonna work. So I would love to hear your vision of like, this is what your daily life would be in 2030 or 2040 and why you’re gonna be wildly happy that this all has been done.

JS: So I think everyone got a preview of this during COVID where everything shut down for like three or four months and amazingly, our air got cleaner. I can breathe in my neighborhood. The skies are far bluer than I’ve ever seen them in my entire lifetime. I think that matters. I think that we have the technology to make that permanent all the time without a pandemic to make that happen. That’s extraordinary. And I think that in general, folks are like, well, we have to be pragmatic about it. I don’t know, there’s a transition, whatever, whatever. I’m like, do you want clean air? Do you want less people to go to the hospital for asthma attacks? Do you want clear blue skies? If you do, then we’re on track to delivering that in the 2030s.

But the same thing’s true for like maternal health. One of the top reasons why women die in childbirth is because they’re dying from— they have to give birth to cellphone light in many countries. We have the ability to solve that next week. Next week. We should do that. And it happens to be clean energy technologies that causes this breakthrough. But when you look at like We Care Solar and some of these nonprofits have these suitcase solar technologies where they can outfit a maternal health clinic with electricity and the basic equipment you need to take care of most complications. It’s extraordinary.

The same thing’s true for telecom towers and kerosene. There are many places around the world that spend billions of dollars every year on kerosene and there’s mobsters that steal the kerosene vouchers and then make people like pay a higher kerosene. You have a lot of people who have burns from those kerosene and you meet them every day and you’re like, where’s that burn from? That’s kerosene burn. We can eliminate that next week. I just think that in terms of making people’s lives better, we can do that now. And I just think that sometimes we’re just too practical in the way that we talk about this. I think we need to commit ourselves to solving the problems that are today, today. And when people say, well, there’s this shareholder issue, there’s this regulation with the Fed, the SEC needs to weigh in, the treasury department has to do this thing, let’s solve it. Those are all within our control to figure out how to solve and it will make people’s lives materially better.

EV: Amazing. Jigar, thank you so much for coming on.

JS: No, my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

EV: We’ll be right back after this break.

Welcome back to What Could Go Right?

ZK: So, Emma, are you sold on the vision of the time is now, the moment is ours, the possibility is there, the checks are being written?

EV: It’s nice to hear someone that’s like so lit up by what he is doing. Because we are lay people, it’s hard to get into the super nitty gritty on this of like, where are we in terms of industrial processes? What exactly is a virtual power plant and what does that mean for me? I’m still kind of struggling to grasp a vision of what my life, if I were to be in the US in 2030 or 2035, like exactly what that would look like with a battery in my home for everything. That’s what I’m still trying to wrap my brain around.

ZK: Yeah. I realize we should have asked him about the— one big question is, with all the mandates for electric vehicles in the United States, what about charging stations and what about the infrastructure for charging stations? I mean, I know he’s involved in some of this anyway, but that remains one of these mismatches between state mandates for electrification of vehicles versus no particular aggressive funding for charging stations.

I mean, I think there’s a lot of holes in this particular Swiss cheese. And I’m not trying to in any way pooh-pooh what’s going on. It’s actually quite extraordinary what’s going on and it’s probably the best use of public funds. And as Jigar mentioned in his comments, like the government, not just the United States government, but every government, has been underwriting particularly energy infrastructure forever. So the idea that this is now selective, and I think in many ways the critique of the right in the United States is both hypocritical and wrong, simultaneously both. And it just ignores the legacy of one of the things government does in order to provide material security for its citizens is it makes sure that there’s reliable energy supplies, and government’s been doing that forever. So the fact that it’s now doing that for non-carbon or renewable energy should not be seen as, oh my god, government is picking winners. And I mean, it’s a ridiculous argument.

EV: I guess it’s just the surety of like, is this thing gonna be more expensive or less expensive? And is government gonna be underwriting it forever? I understand that concern. Obviously, everything will come out in the wash 10, 20, 30 years from now. We’ll certainly see.

ZK: With the new washing machine that Jigar says we should all be buying to wash the—

EV: Ah, Lord knows I need a new washing machine.

ZK: All right, shall we turn to the news of the week that we are trying to help people pay attention to, particularly in these days of war and political dysfunction?

EV: So today, we are all about Africa. Actually, we’re not completely about Africa. We’re almost all about Africa. So we’re gonna start with South Africa. Their High Court ruled that both parents must have a right to parental leave.

Audio Clip: Now, a court ruling has set in motion big changes for parental leave in South Africa. Sections of the Basic Conditions of Employment Act have been ruled unconstitutional. Under interim conditions, parents of a natural birth will be able to determine how the four months of leave is doled out, removing the forced caregiver roles pushed on mothers and fathers. Parents of surrogate children and those who adopt children under the age of two will be granted the same parental leave rights.

EV: What they’ve decided, depends on your vantage point, whether this is good or not good. From the United States’ vantage point, for a lot of people, I think it’s gonna sound near miraculous. From the vantage point of maybe somewhere like Sweden or Germany, less impressive. Before this new ruling, mothers had four months of parental leave and fathers had maximum up to 10 days. But the High Court has decided that now both parents get four months between them and they get to decide how they split it up. That’s in the event of both a birth of a baby or adoption, which is kind of neat. The other neat thing is that all the countries around South Africa, I took a look, and there’s no guaranteed parental leave for fathers in all of its neighbors. But again, I guess if you’re a South African mom and you are used to getting your full four months and now you kind of have to share it with dad, it’s like, it’s good, it’s not good. What do you think?

ZK: Well, first of all, I don’t think the United States gets four months, so that’s a lot already. So there, I mean, some companies obviously compensate for that, but we have very few national legal protections about things like parental leave, as many people have pointed out before us, and I hope many people will point out after us. So already that’s pretty significant and generous. I wonder how well it will be enforced or how much it is honored in the breach. Meaning when someone’s not looking, or smaller businesses, you name it. But I would think that even sharing four months is a lot better than four months versus 10 days.

EV: Sure. You know, we put up a podcast recently about paid sick leave in the United States and how that’s going up. And somebody from Germany commented on that video saying, “You guys sound like you live in a dystopia.” And that made me laugh because from my perspective, the South African news is fantastic, but if you read the coverage of it from South Africans, they are disappointed. They would’ve rather have seen that the mother kept four months and then the father would also get time. Not that you’d have to cut down on the mother’s time to give the father some time. And I do understand that complaint, but when you’re used to something much more ambiguous, shall we say, sounds great. And it’s definitely a leader as far as it’s as far as its region. So we’re gonna give them a half clap, I guess.

ZK: A half clap. A sound of one hand clapping. Is that your Zen koan for the day?

EV: [laughs] It is. It is. What is the sound of one hand clapping for shared parental leave in South Africa? That’s an update. An update [inaudible]

ZK: Wow. That’s like a new and refined Zen koan as it applies to parental leave in Sub-Saharan Africa.

EV: So keeping with our Africa theme, this is actually old news, but every once in a while things come out from places like the World Bank. This one is from the World Bank that we have completely missed. And I thought that this was quite interesting. They did a little roundup of improvements for women in the workplace in Côte d’Ivoire and Gabon between 2021 and 2022, where they have eliminated restrictions on women’s employment. They’ve barred gender-based discrimination in financial services, and they’ve established legislation for equal remuneration for work of equal value. And also we’re gonna add Togo into that with some changes from November 2022. They have prohibited gender-based discrimination in access to credit and they have also decided that you can’t fire pregnant mothers. So some other African countries around the continent. I said women in the workplace, it’s the workplace as well as financial services access. I think that gets a full clap.

ZK: So I think the question though, before you jump into the full clap, not that I’m not in favor of full claps, is what the relationship will be between these laws being passed and these laws being enforced or these laws actually translating into behavior because, and I am in fact striking the skeptical note here, there’s many countries in the world where a whole series of rights, free speech, free association, religion, equal rights between genders are enshrined in a constitution or some sort of central legal document. And that the then lived practice in those societies is a far cry from that articulation. And look, you could say the same issues pertain in the United States in multiple ways that do we live up to the spirit of our founding legal documents. So I’m not making this as a cultural critique. It’s more of a, it will be important to see whether or not the passage of these laws then equates to people living commensurate with what these laws dictate or say.

EV: I think that’s the standard pushback to this kind of legislation-based good news. But I will say that I think that the legislation is the necessary first step. It’s hard for me to imagine of any country where things changed on the ground for the better and then they were like, I guess we should pass a law around that. That’s just not how the process works. So yes, of course there’s probably, definitely actually, going to be space between what the legislation says and what’s actually happening. But without that legislation passing first, there’s just not a whole lot of— there can be impetus in certain directions that arise from just natural sort of movements. What was I just reading about that was really interesting? Bangladesh, I think. There are so many well-paying jobs open to women out in Bangladesh. I was just reading this somewhere, that there’s a natural impetus for women to join the work force. It’s not something that had to be done legislatively, but when that’s not happening on the ground already, I think the legislation is necessary. So we can give a full clap on the first step. Maybe not a full clap on the full shebang. How about that?

ZK: Okay. So we’ll give a full clap.

EV: [laughs]

ZK: We don’t have to do the Zen koan question ’cause that’s actually the sound of a full clap clapping for the enhanced legal rights for all sorts of gender and family law in Sub-Saharan Africa. So full clap.

EV: Yes. All right.

ZK: We can do the full clap.

EV: Thank you. Thank you, Zachary. Appreciate that. [laughs]

ZK: Okay.

EV: And we are staying on Africa still. In mid-November, we missed World Toilet Day. These are the things—

ZK: Oh my god.

EV: Yes, I know.

ZK: What were we doing? What were we thinking?

EV: I know, I know.

ZK: How could I have missed that?

EV: I really wish the social media around these things sometimes, they were able to use humor because that would be such a fantastic social media campaign if it wasn’t earnest. But I’m sure it was earnest and it was earnest for good reasons. But I think a lot more people would know about World Toilet Day.

ZK: No pun intended there. You said, but, butt.

EV: Oh, that was ass-inine.

ZK: Oh my god. All right.

EV: [laughs]

Audio Clip: Toilets, you’ve seen them before, especially ones that look like this. But in many parts of the world, like Central and South Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Oceania toilets look like this. There are about 4.2 billion people living in the world without safely managed sanitation. That’s more than half the world’s total population. About 673 million people are practicing open defecation. That’s when people choose to do their business in fields, bushes, and open bodies of water instead of toilets.

EV: In 2022, 420 million people practiced open defecation. That’s 5% of the global population. It’s primarily in South Asia. And within that South Asia part of the pie, it’s mostly India, a little bit of Pakistan and Sub-Saharan Africa. Smaller amount, much smaller amount, is East Asia. And even smaller than that, Latin America and Caribbean. It’s progress because since 2000, the number of people who practiced open defecation has reduced by 68%. So access to toilets, something that we are moving in the right direction in. And as always, particularly with global population going up, the fact that this is getting better, again, is worth some extra applause.

ZK: You know, there was also a really interesting article in The Economist recently about Xi Jinping. And for the past eight or nine years, actually bringing running water and sanitary toilets to the bulk of the Chinese population has been a big priority for Xi Jinping. Who knew? But there is, as you point out, some extraordinarily pragmatic reasons in that malaria, communicable diseases, the cost that that creates versus the benefits of running water, clean sanitation. You know, this was something that propelled western population growth in the late 19th century and propelled population growth throughout the world in the 20th. And we’re sort of at the— most of the world is now in a more sanitary situation. But that’s also also one of the reasons for disease eradication. Obviously, not all diseases, but particularly communicable diseases. And it’s an easy fix, easy in the sense of it’s not complicated, but it can be costly. And one of the things that— the challenge for Xi Jinping has been is that changing people’s behavior is challenging. People are used to disposing of whatever they dispose of in a certain way. But here’s to World Toilet Day. I will mark it on my calendar for, you said November 17th? That’s not like-

EV: I think it was—

ZK: -the same Tuesday of every month, it’s actually November 17th?

EV: I didn’t double-check that. [laughs]

ZK: We’re gonna call it November 17th, 2024. Mark it on your calendar.

EV: There we go.

ZK: It’ll be right after the US presidential election. So I know everyone will be profound— their calendars will be free assuming a winner has been called by then, and we’ll be able to give World Toilet Day its due in 2024.

EV: Yes. And people can also think about the fact that a lot of that is the India story. Again, if you look at those numbers, it’s actually increasing in Sub-Saharan Africa, but the India story strikes once again that they are really doing a lot to industrialize the nation and bring them up to a certain level, so.

ZK: We should definitely do another episode on India and the changes. Also, Modi’s future that he’ll almost certainly win another term, and just the sense that India for let’s say the 2020s and beyond will be somewhat of a global equivalent to what China was in the 2000s. And this being the kind of change X factor in the global, certainly global economic system, but to some degree, the power balance as well. Probably something we should focus on a bit more than we have.

EV: Yeah. We can call it India is Coming.

ZK: Exactly.

EV: The era of India has begun.

ZK: Rising elephant.

EV: Oh, yeah, that’s nice. The rising elephant.

ZK: Yeah.

EV: Moving away from World Toilet Day, I know everyone’s sad about that.

ZK: Yeah.

EV: We have a figure from a report, and it’s gonna be our last bit of news for today. We’re on the short side today. The Lancet Countdown is a report that highlights the health and wellbeing challenges, risks, general activities linked to climate change. And they say that between 2005 and 2020, annual deaths attributable to PM2.5 particles, so those are those small particles that lodge themselves in your lungs, these particles linked to fossil fuels, fell from— this is such a high number of deaths. This is sad. 1,437,000 to 1,212,000 or 15.7% reduction. So around 200,000 lives were saved primarily from the move away from coal. Good. Obviously could be a lot better.

ZK: Good. And India too. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, that sort of northern India corridor, which has been beset by both coal and dirty industrial plant pollution also by cooking organic matter, you know, using organic matter for open air kitchens or open air stoves or a combination of those two things. One of the few areas where these three countries are actually trying to work together, Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, to clean up that particulate issue because of course, winds and skies do not know for national borders. So if it’s occurring on the India side of the Pakistan border or the Pakistan side of the India border, it’s not as if the pollution is stopping politely at the border and asking for permission to enter. That’d be a need for a permit.

EV: Applies for a visa. [laughs]

ZK: [laughs] I’m so sorry. You’ll be unable to come into our country at this moment. We’re full of our quota of particulate matter today. But this is an area where countries, or at least in this case, these countries, but I think that’s true in South America as well, have been able to work more together in common interest, pure pragmatism around both health and climate. So these things kind of go on in ways that we don’t fully pay attention to because, again, under the presumption that news of concord is way less immediately noticeable and/or attention-getting than news of discord. So here is another area where there is movement afoot in ways that we should pay more attention to.

EV: Yep. And that news in high-income countries is often very far removed from the realities in middle-income and low-income countries.

ZK: That is an interesting traipse through a series of stories that I am pretty sure did not rise to the top 10 on most people’s news of the week lists, probably not in the New York Times quiz or any other news quiz. And part of what we were trying to do week to week is to highlight things that are going on that are constructive, that will likely affect tens of millions, hundreds of millions of lives in the case of what we’re talking about today in ways that are pretty pronounced and pretty dramatic and should be looked at given that they are pretty constructive and an example of what could go right. So thank you all for listening. Hope you’ve enjoyed the conversation, and we will be back with you next week.

EV: What Could Go Right? is produced by Andrew Steven. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and The Podglomerate. To find out more about What Could Go Right?, The Progress Network, or to join the What Could Go Right? newsletter, visit Thanks for listening.


Meet the Hosts

Zachary Karabell

Emma Varvaloucas


The Progress Report: The EU Goes Right

Featuring Zachary Karabell & Emma Varvaloucas

In the first episode of our new weekly news podcast, Emma and Zachary look into the recent EU elections, school lunches in America, and how a YouTuber in Cyprus possibly won a seat in European Parliament by accident.

Progress and Backlash

Featuring Fareed Zakaria

When we hear the word ‘revolution,’ we often think of the bloody conflicts of the past. But what constitutes a modern-day revolution within our current economic system and forms of government? Both parties within American politics have seen cultural revolutions and shifting value sets with each decade. Zachary and Emma discuss these changes with CNN host, journalist, and author Fareed Zakaria. His latest book, ‘Age of Revolutions,’ explores past and present conflicts that define the polarized and unstable age in which we live.

The Social Media Generation

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Is social media safe for children? How old do kids need to be to have smartphones? Is Gen Z's mental health declining because of TikTok? Zachary and Emma speak with Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist and author of "The Anxious Generation." Social media's effect on brain development, TV Parental Guidelines and the internet's lack thereof, and the influence of video games on young men are discussed here today.