A scoop that surprised the experts

The following memo to AP staff from Senior Managing Editor Mike Oreskes describes how an environmental exclusive came together through the reporting of a European correspondent, joined by AP colleagues in Asia:

A scoop tells readers something they didn’t know. AP’s Karl Ritter went further and broke news so exclusive that even experts in the field were surprised. His story, this week’s Beat of the Week, disclosed how $1 billion in climate-change financing under a U.N.-led program was being used to build coal-fired power plants in Indonesia.

In this Oct. 18 , 2014 photo, fishing boat passes near a fired coal power plant on the river in Cirebon. The coal-fired power plant in Cirebon came online two years ago despite years of protests from environmentalists and villagers who say the plant is polluting coastal waters, killing off fish and crabs.  (AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim)

In this Oct. 18 , 2014 photo, fishing boat passes near a fired coal power plant on the river in Cirebon. The coal-fired power plant in Cirebon came online two years ago despite years of protests from environmentalists and villagers who say the plant is polluting coastal waters, killing off fish and crabs. (AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim)

The story broke as key players in the climate change community were gathering for a summit in Peru, and they reacted with surprise and concern. Coal, after all, is a major source of carbon pollution.

Even U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres acknowledged she was unaware that Japan was building coal plants with climate money, until she saw AP’s story. “There is no argument for that,” she told Ritter. “Unabated coal has no room in the future energy system.”

Ritter, the AP’s bureau chief in Stockholm, started with a simple goal. “I wanted to investigate where climate finance money was going because there didn’t seem to be any accountability in the UN system,” he says.

He began by turning to a non-governmental organization that tries to keep track of the scores of channels of climate finance, which is money flowing from rich to poor countries as a way to tackle global warming. Searching the group’s database, he found that Japan had provided funding for the biggest projects so far.

Turning next to the U.N. climate secretariat, he located an annex listing Japanese climate finance projects reported to the UN in 2010-2012. That’s where he spotted the “thermal” power plants in Indonesia.

When he realized they were coal-fired power plants, he thought there must be some mistake. He went back to the NGO and asked if they had any idea how coal plants could get on the list. They, too, thought there must be a mistake: “That can’t be right,” the NGO representative said.

“That’s when I realized we had a story,” Ritter says. “If even NGOs dedicated to tracking climate finance didn’t know about these plants, how would anyone else?”

He started researching the plants in question and found reports from Indonesia saying villagers near the Cirebon plant had protested, in vain, plans to build it.

Margie Mason in Jakarta then led a cross-format team that went to Cirebon in September. Villagers told her that since the plant was built in 2012 their catches of crab, mussels and shrimp had dwindled. Plant officials denied any environmental problems, though they acknowledged there may have been some inconvenience to local fishermen.

Next, Ritter needed Japan’s response. How did officials there justify counting Cirebon and two other plants in Indonesia as climate finance at a time when other developed countries were restricting public money for such projects, precisely because of their high emissions?

Yuri Kageyama and Ken Moritsugu pressed reluctant Japanese officials for comment. In the week before the climate conference in Lima, Moritsugu secured interviews with Japanese officials who not only defended the plants but said Japan will keep counting such projects as climate finance in the UN climate negotiations.

The story played prominently on abcnews.com, MSN News and Huffington Post, among others. Newsweek did its own piece on AP’s scoop.

The scoop rippled through the U.N. climate talks. Environmental groups at the talks demanded that  the Green Climate Fund exclude coal. Climate activists staged a protest against Japan’s coal funding at the conference venue. And the U.N. climate secretariat called a news conference to showcase its efforts to improve the rules governing climate finance.

“We need to define what is climate finance and what is not,”  said Seyni Nafo on the U.N. climate agency’s Standing Committee on Finance.

For a scoop that informed us all and really got the attention of the experts, Ritter wins Beat of the Week and this week’s $500 prize.