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“MEPs have developed a culture of impunity”: Fighting Corruption in Brussels after Qatargate

Green European Journal - Thu, 01/19/2023 - 02:57

In December 2022, Brussels was rocked by a corruption scandal in the European Union, involving a vice president of the Parliament and the wealthy Gulf state Qatar. Nicholas Aiossa from Transparency International explains the extent of corruption in the European institutions, where the current rules fall short, and how to fix them.

Green European Journal: Greek socialist MEP and vice president of the European Parliament Eva Kaili was taken into custody after Belgian investigators found bags stuffed with 600,000 euros in cash in her apartment – most likely bribes from Qatar. Former Italian socialist MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri is also in police custody and it is clear that other influential figures are involved. What do we know about the extent of corruption in the European Parliament? Is this just the tip of the iceberg?

Nicholas Aiossa: To lay the foundation of where we are, it is important to point out that this is not a lobbying scandal but a corruption and bribery scandal. The scope of the scandal is perhaps unprecedented in the European Parliament but, make no mistake, there has been a series of fraudulent behaviour by some MEPs over the last decade. So I am not surprised by this scandal. Only the antiquated method of using suitcases of cash is surprising.

Is it the tip of the iceberg? Yes, it very well could be. Not least because in the six or seven weeks since the story broke, there had been further revelations, there have been further people investigated, and there have been further requests to lift the immunity of MEPs.

Is there a clear line to draw between corruption and lobbying?

Yes. Lobbying is a lawful activity and it can enrich the policymaking debate. We just have to make sure that it is transparent, governed by a strict ethical regime and codes of conduct, and that undue influence by certain sectors or industry are not allowed to be prevalent.

I used to work in the European Parliament for MEPs sitting on the trade committee. I know first-hand that it is quite common to have third-country diplomats try and convince MEPs of their particular policy positions when it comes to agreements or pieces of legislation. Again, that is purely distinct from where we are now. In the current case, people in positions of power have been paid off to use their positions to influence policy.

In the case of Qatargate, how could it happen that this bribery went on without anyone noticing?

A contributing factor is the culture of impunity that has been left to fester in the European Parliament. The existing ethics and integrity rules are very lax. For the financial management of some allowances, the rules are non-existent and there is very little monitoring of potential conflicts of interest.

The absolute lack of protections afforded to whistleblowing from parliamentary assistants and staff members of the European Parliament is one of the main issues that needs to be addressed and it directly relates to the scandal. The corruption has been going on for quite some time, the Belgian authorities have been investigating it for months, and the bribery has involved various players, both at a political and staff level. It is fair to ask whether there were people in the Parliament who saw something suspicious and chose not to report it – knowing that they would not be afforded proper protections.

At Transparency International, we work on issues like money laundering, the protection of EU financial interests, the rule of law, and the whistleblowing directive. The European Parliament is oftentimes our strongest supporter on establishing proper anti-corruption rules for the 27 member states. But MEPs are our biggest opponents when it comes to setting the same rules for themselves.

There is a glaring double standard and whistleblowing is an excellent example. The EU’s Whistleblower Directive was brought forward several years ago. It is a comprehensive directive that gives very robust protections to employees in both the public and the private sector in 27 member states. However, it does not apply to the staff of the European Union’s institutions, agencies, or bodies. These people are afforded protection under the staff regulation, but it is up to the individual institutions to bring about the rules that govern those protections. Out of all the EU’s institutions, agencies and bodies, the European Parliament’s rules are the worst. They are garbage. In 2016, three accredited parliamentary assistants reported wrongdoing and all three were fired. Since that time, only one other assistant has come forward to report wrongdoing.

The systems in place are not adequate. Rules either do not exist or they are not backed up with proper monitoring, oversight, or sanctions. If an MEP breaches the code of conduct, the worst sanction that they will receive is 30 days docked off their daily allowance. But even that does not seem to particularly worry them, because in the last legislature, there were 24 breaches and not one sanction. The discretion to issue a sanction or not is up to the president of the Parliament. With all of this, the MEPs have developed a culture of impunity.

The NGO Fight Impunity was already investigated by the EU Commission’s ethics body in 2020 when former European Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos wanted to lobby for this organisation. The ethics committee noticed that the NGO was not in the EU lobby register and did not disclose the source of its money. How is that possible?

It is a loophole in the regime that governs lobbying in Brussels, which is a shared responsibility between the three main institutions. The particular loophole is that the Transparency Register is not mandatory. If NGOs or industry groups choose not to register, institutions cannot compel them to. Of course, there are conditionality measures. Those who fail to register will not have access to the parliamentary access badge, for example. In theory, they should not be able to meet with commissioners, cabinet members, directors general, or staff of the Commission without first registering and should not be formally participating in committee activities. But that is just theory and here is where things completely went wrong in the Panzeri scandal [Pier Antonio Panzeri is a former MEP and founder of Fight Impunity], as the NGO in question was very active in different parliamentary DGs and subcommittees, such as the Human Rights Subcommittee.

Is it the tip of the iceberg? Yes, it very well could be.

According to the European Parliament’s code of conduct, MEPs are allowed to engage in paid activities outside their mandate, be members of external bodies, and own shares in companies. As long as all this is allowed, how can we expect full transparency on outside influences?

They should not be allowed to do that, as it is riddled with problems. The first problem is that MEPs are engaging in outside paid activities when they should be devoting their attention to carrying out their elected legislative responsibilities. The second problem is that the declarations of financial interest that they are required to fill out do not oblige them to be very specific about these external activities. This is something that Transparency International has tried to get them to change for years. Some MEPs report work as “consultants”, but in many cases this is just a nice way of saying “lobbyist” and we do not even know for whom they work because they are not obliged to disclose. Others work as lawyers, but again we do not know who their clients are and how much money they make.

The disclosure rules about lobbying do not apply to efforts by third countries. Why not?

It was argued that lobbying is different from diplomacy. In reality, there is some overlap and third countries should register when they are seeking to influence a process. This is one of the things that we hope will change in light of this present scandal.

What is Qatar getting out of this lobbying effort in your opinion?

I can only speculate. From the public reports, Qatar could perhaps influence and encourage whitewashing of its image in parliamentary resolutions, which has been reported in relation to the World Cup resolution in November [reports found that some Socialist MEPs watered down criticism of workers’ rights in Qatar]. There is a legislative file on visa liberalisation that would facilitate travel between Qatar and the Union; and there has been speculation that elements of the Qatar Airways deal about granting the company unlimited access to the EU market could also encourage Qatar to engage in this kind of illegal activity. If these speculations are correct, Qatar has plenty of interest in ensuring favourable outcomes to these processes.

Which kinds of actors are most likely to be involved in corruption?

Difficult to say, simply because there have not been a lot of publicly revealed scandals involving corruption and third countries until now, at least with the Parliament. The corruption and fraud scandals involving the Parliament – and there have been many – are usually petty fraud issues involving misuse of allowances. There has been speculation about influence by Russia over the years, but nothing has been substantiated by concrete evidence that would lead to a criminal or civil procedure.

Prior to the Qatargate, the biggest scandal involving bribery was faux bribery. The cash-for-amendment scandal in 2011 was a sting operation in which a journalist paid cash to MEPs in order to table amendments. It was the only time that there has been meaningful reforms from the Parliament and a code of conduct for members of the European Parliament was adopted. Since then, nothing has happened. Public and private institutions often fail to put in place proper anti-corruption frameworks until the scandal hits.

In the past, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen promised an independent ethics body for more robust ethics control. Where are we?

We have called for an independent ethics body for years. In fact, we were quite surprised that President von der Leyen included it in her political guidelines in 2019. She tasked Vice President of the European Commission Věra Jourová with bringing forward a proposal but nothing has happened so far.

We support the creation of this body because it will introduce a necessary and much needed independent element to the ethics regime of the Parliament and other institutions. But I need to point out that all the technical rules that govern MEPs’ ethical behaviour are the responsibility of the institution. If the Parliament wanted to, technically, it could change the rules anytime it wanted. MEPs hide behind this proposal and blame the Commission because it is convenient.

In fact, this proposal will likely come in the form of an inter-institutional agreement, which is essentially just a binding commitment made between the institutions to take action. Even if the proposal comes forward and is adopted, the onus on changing the rules that govern the House will still fall on the Parliament.

A contributing factor is the culture of impunity that has been left to fester in the European Parliament.

Have there been any important developments since this scandal broke in December regarding the ethical rules?

The European Parliment President Roberta Metsola introduced a package of reform proposals with 14 objectives. This package is a serious proposal, but it does not go far enough. It leaves some of the much needed issues for a later date, while some of the proposals need to adapted because they are not fit for purpose. [Transparency International has made an initial assessment.]

But we need to see the reaction from 705 MEPs. We have seen non-binding reforms suggested by the majority of plenary before, which were summarily dismissed and ignored by the political leadership of the Parliament. It will be crucial to see their commitment to following through with the promises made in the resolution of December, which do speak to larger institutional reforms.

What measures would you recommend?

First, as a matter of urgency, the Parliament needs to take steps to address the lobbying elements and particularly the inclusion of third-country representatives in requiring them to be more transparent and MEPs to be more transparent over their interactions with them. This step is the least controversial bit and will probably happen.

A more controversial step (for MEPs) is properly introducing whistleblowing rules that protect EU staff and parliamentary assistant and that align with the Whistleblower Directive. Without those protections, they will not feel safe to disclose potential wrongdoing. The code of conduct also needs to be revised to address conflicts of interest, the problems with the declarations, and the problems with the sanctions – these are all steps that concern rules of procedure governing the house.

Probably the most bold and unsavoury proposal for MEPs would be to strip the European Parliament’s Bureau of all decision-making power on issues of transparency, integrity, and fraud. The Bureau is a body inside the Parliament that is composed of the 14 Vice Presidents and the President – and let us not forget that Eva Kaili was one of the Vice Presidents. It has been consistently the biggest opponents to potential reform concerning transparency, integrity, ethics, and antifraud.

On these matters, the Bureau should be stripped of decision-making powers and they should be redistributed to the relevant committees that hold the relevant mandates. So, the Constitutional Affairs Committee should oversee all issues concerning codes of conduct, rules and procedure, implementing measures, and ethical behaviour of members. All issues of transparency and access to documents should be a Legal Affairs Committee competence. MEP allowances should be dealt with by the Budgetary Control Committee, which ensures the sound financial management of EU funds. It would make complete sense that they govern the rules on the spending of EU money. MEPs’ expenses are a huge issue. MEPs receive an allowance called the “general expenditure allowance”, which is meant for office expenses in Brussels and their constituencies as well as representation costs. It totals 4400 euros per month and is deposited into MEPs’ accounts. Not one receipt is required for expenditure that amounts to 40 million a year for the Parliament.

Do we also need increased transparency on MEP’s assets?

Yes. Further transparency over the financial assets and interests is needed and not just for tangible assets but also financial interests of members that do not exist at the moment. There are some obligations under the declarations, but again, we have seen time and time again that members are either filling them out with little detail to make scrutiny impossible or not filling them out properly and omitting key details. We would like to see that these declarations are filled out in extreme detail before being verified by the parliamentary services.

Is the increased scrutiny of NGOs necessary (as some right-wing actors have called for) or would that be counterproductive?

It is a red herring. The problem is not with being an NGO. What these NGOs or any interest representatives should be required to do is register in the Transparency Registry, which they were not doing in the case of Qatargate. Transparency International is an NGO and we are registered in the Transparency Register, we disclose our funding on an annual basis, we disclose what files we are working on, and we disclose what meetings we have. If non-transparent interest representatives had been required to register, we would not have these concerns.

What steps could the Greens take to help put a stop to corruption in the European institutions?

They can practice what they preach. On lobby transparency, the Greens are the group that has the highest percentage of members that publish their meetings. But take the general expenditure allowance. As of three years ago, MEPs, on a voluntary basis, were allowed to use their allowances to hire an external auditor to audit the General Expenditure Allowance and then they could formally submit that audit report and have it published on their individual MEP’s website. Of the 705 MEPs, only a few dozen did so. Many were Green but it wasn’t all the MEPs in the Group. If they are serious about convincing other groups that these kinds of reforms are necessary, they should all be doing it.

The political group could also introduce internal whistleblowing rules that govern staff of the European Greens and Green MEPs could have their declarations of financial interest be the most stellar declarations that the Parliament has ever seen, with details of their financial holdings and interests as well as paid and unpaid activities. Some already do but not all. With these issues, they are not going to score the same political points with their constituents that they would on a climate package – they are even going to make enemies – but it is the right thing to do. It will take more than tabling non-binding amendments to bring about real, meaningful reforms.

Categories: H. Green News

In Europe’s Clean Energy Transition, Industry Turns to Heat Pumps

Yale Environment 360 - Thu, 01/19/2023 - 02:00

With soaring gas prices due to the Ukraine war and the EU’s push to cut emissions, European industries are increasingly switching to high-temperature, high-efficiency heat pumps. Combined with the boom in residential use, the EU is now hoping for a heat pump revolution.

Read more on E360 →

Categories: H. Green News

Why are so few talking about the power grid amid extreme winter storms?

High Country News - Thu, 01/19/2023 - 01:00
California’s current deluge highlights huge vulnerabilities.
Categories: H. Green News

California’s power outages are a life-and-death issue

High Country News - Thu, 01/19/2023 - 01:00
A perspective on the impacts of storms for people with disabilities.
Categories: H. Green News

Rising Dust from Desert Wind Storms Has Curbed Warming, Study Finds

Yale Environment 360 - Wed, 01/18/2023 - 07:05

The amount of dust generated by desert windstorms has grown markedly since the mid-19th century, helping to curb the global rise in temperature, new research shows.

Read more on E360 →

Categories: H. Green News

Radical Pragmatism: Scottish Greens in Government

Green European Journal - Wed, 01/18/2023 - 06:17

In August 2021, Scottish Greens struck a deal with the Scottish National Party (SNP) on a joint programme for government. For party co-leader Patrick Harvie, this has meant a chance to be in government after nearly 20 years in parliament, taking on the role of Minister for Zero Carbon Buildings, Active Travel and Tenants’ Rights. In this interview, conducted on the fringes of the European Green Party Congress in Copenhagen, he discusses prospects for independence, opportunities for an energy revolution, and how to channel the tensions that can arise between grassroots activists and policymakers.

Green European Journal: The Scottish Green Party has now been in government for over a year. What’s your assessment of how it has gone so far?

Patrick Harvie: The SNP has been in government for a long time, but they’ve only ever been on their own in government so they’re having to adapt to working with us on every issue. It’s a big change for both of us but it seems to be working. The opinion polls suggests that our voters like it, that they have some trust that this collaboration is built on genuine common ground without fundamental compromises of principle.

For Green parties, coalitions present a lot of risks. But I think we’ve got an arrangement that is allowing us to work on some really important things, like nature restoration, the circular economy, the heat and buildings agenda, active travel instead of road building, and free public transport for young people. There’s a huge amount that we’re getting done. I’d like to hope that it’s also setting a new tone for Scottish politics by showing that political parties can agree to disagree on some things but still work together.

What are your priorities for the remainder of the mandate?

For me personally, heat and buildings are priority. We have extremely poor energy efficiency standards in Scottish homes, and we are also overwhelmingly reliant on gas boilers. We’ve just announced a new package of grants and loans to help people move away from gas, and next year we’re going to be consulting on regulations that will require all buildings to reach better energy performance standards and to decarbonise. We need to do a million homes in this decade, and the rest by 2045. We cannot meet our legally-binding climate targets without an ambitious programme in that direction.

There’s also a very strong expectation that we will advance the case for independence. I don’t think anyone can look at the shambles of the UK Conservative Party over recent months and think “I’d like to be governed by that.” It’s not just that they represent a fundamentally different political agenda which Scotland hasn’t voted for since the 1950s, it’s that a lie was told to us in the 2014 referendum on independence. We were told that voting “No” would protect economic stability, give us a strong voice within the UK, and maintain our place in Europe. All three of those promises have been broken. We’ve been taken out of Europe after having voted overwhelmingly to stay in, we’ve had the powers of the Scottish Parliament undermined profoundly by the UK government and they’re continuing to do so, and we’ve seen political instability.

The consequences of those broken promises have been pushed onto the people who are least responsible for the political instability but are the most vulnerable. Fundamentally, there is a real need to put the question of independence back to the people of Scotland. Some of the polls suggest it’s not just neck and neck but that there is now a majority in favour of independence.

The UK Supreme Court recently ruled that a second independence referendum cannot be held without the approval of the Westminster government. Where does this leave the campaign?

First of all, of course the ruling has to be accepted and we respect the fact that the Court is not making the law or saying what would happen, it’s just interpreting the law – in this sense it’s a reminder that we have a fundamentally unfair constitution. The idea that the UK Conservative Party would have accepted the notion that they couldn’t hold their Brexit referendum until the EU gave them permission would have been absurd – they’d have thrown a fit. That is, in a sense, what they’re telling us; that we can’t decide our future without their permission.

We’ve now got the strongest pro-independence majority in the Scottish parliament since it was created. We will continue to advocate for the UK government to respect this mandate. We want Scotland to make its choice peacefully and democratically, we wouldn’t tolerate anything else, but there has to be a route open for this otherwise some people would be tempted to look at less legal options and we don’t want that to happen.

If the UK government continues to refuse to engage, I think it will make people very angry and one option that’s been floated is that we treat the next UK election as a de facto referendum. We would set out our wider policy and how we would use the powers currently held at Westminster to improve the lives of people in Scotland, and we would then treat the votes for all pro-independence candidates added together as a mandate if it reaches 50 per cent. Some voters might find this unclear or messy, and legally it’s very different from having a single, unified “Yes” campaign and a single “No” campaign. It’s far from the ideal but we have a political impasse now. So if not a referendum, then what? There has to be a democratic route, and to be told that route is illegitimate by the same people who are blocking other legitimate routes is simply not acceptable.

How have the current circumstances, such as the war in Ukraine and the cost of living crisis, affected the work you’ve been doing in government, for example around renewables or climate change?

First of all, the emergency response to the cost of living crisis has been really important in terms of directly helping people. I pushed through emergency legislation on a rent freeze and an eviction ban, and we’re working on longer-term proposals for rent controls as well. In terms of the longer-term agenda, and in particular the energy implications of what’s happening at the moment – this is consistent with what we were doing already. It creates a greater sense of urgency, but not a fundamental change of direction.

Most political parties in Scotland used to be fully committed to the long-term continuation and expansion of the oil and gas industry but now it’s only the Conservatives who take that position. Every other party now acknowledges that we must extract only within the limits of what we can use sustainably and that that limit is rapidly declining, and that we have to try and manage the coming transition fairly.

In Scotland we already generate as much electricity as we consume from renewables. There’s a small amount of gas and nuclear on the grid as well but overwhelmingly we have a highly decarbonised electricity generation and capacity already and that’s going to expand dramatically over the course of this decade. We’re going to be further doubling onshore wind capacity, we’re going to see a huge increase in offshore wind and we have some of the most advanced tidal research in the world. We’re going to be generating a lot of of excess green electricity, some for direct export and some to produce green hydrogen. Even if it’s using electricity from the grid, we know that that comes with a strong standard of decarbonised electricity already. There are concerns that there may be some residual element of blue hydrogen but overwhelmingly we’re going to be building a green hydrogen economy for Scotland.

Europe’s shift away from gas, particularly Russian gas, as well as away from fossil fuels more generally is going to be a huge economic opportunity, particularly for the parts of Scotland that have been traditionally dependent on the oil and gas industry. This is about showing them that this transition can work for them and can give them prosperity, jobs, and security for the future. It’s also an opportunity for Europe and it’s part of Scotland’s offer, if you like, for re-joining the EU because the energy resources in Scotland are a strategic asset for Europe. We’re likely to be generating as much green hydrogen for export as the whole of Germany wants to import.

Have alliances with community and civil society organisations contributed to helping the Greens achieve its objectives in government? Have there been tensions when grassroots activists have felt frustration with the scale and pace of change?

It’s probably inevitable that a party going into government for the first time is going to experience some of those tensions. It’s a different way of working. I know how satisfying it is to stand up and make speeches demanding perfection now. I’ve been doing it for 20 years and frankly I’m bored of making those speeches because it achieves very little. It can be more frustrating to deliver what’s possible and push at the boundaries of what’s possible but to not pretend that you can solve every problem with a speech.

Take the rent freeze, for example. Party members and organisations like Living Rent and others were very happy that we managed to achieve that. But before that happened, the Labour Party came to parliament with a half-baked proposal that wouldn’t have worked – that would have been illegal and in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights – and we had to vote that down. Before we got to make our supporters and members happy, we had to make them impatient and that can be frustrating. We need to ensure they are constructive tensions rather than destructive ones.

A lot of the speeches at this Congress have expressed how Greens, whether they are in government or not, are both radical and pragmatic because the radical position is the only pragmatic position. It’s those who cling to a free-market ideology who are being irrational and unpragmatic. They are pretending that their ideology can defy science the reality of the physical world around us. Greens are about pragmatic solutions; they’re about making the world better. That means not making it perfect tomorrow or even the next day but making substantial steps in that direction and improving people’s lives. The rent freeze doesn’t solve every aspect of the private rental market. It doesn’t reduce people’s rents immediately and it doesn’t correct the fact that we’ve had a dysfunctional housing market for decades, but it does protect people right now from 10, 20, 30 per cent rent increases.

Since Brexit, has there been a debate about how Scotland sees its place in Europe?

Events since 2016 have deepened the view in Scotland that Brexit is a mistake. In UK politics there’s almost this sort of unspoken agreement not to talk about how harmful this has been. There are academics, journalists and campaigners who are trying to talk about it, but the political parties are incapable of recognising what a majority of the public are now saying across the UK: this was a mistake, this has done harm.

In Scotland, our political landscape is far more willing to talk about this, to acknowledge it openly and publicly, with the exception of the Conservatives. There are some exceptions, but overwhelmingly, the pro-independence movement is also about re-joining Europe and the anti-independence movement offers no path back into Europe at the moment.

This is the dominant question in Scottish politics at the moment: is our future within the UK or is it within the EU? I’m in no doubt that if that had been understood as the choice in 2014, that this was not about voting for independence versus the status quo but rather about choosing Europe or the UK, people would have chosen independence within Europe.

At the last party conference, Scottish Green Party members voted in favour of a motion to suspend ties with the Green Party of England and Wales. Do you see this as a temporary step connected to the issue of transphobia, or does it point to deeper divergences?

No. This particular move is specifically about the issue of transphobia. I know that there are many people within the Green Party of England and Wales who are taking that issue seriously and who are trying to make progress on dealing with those who promote transphobia within the party. It has been frustratingly slow for them and for us watching as well.

It’s an issue that’s very important to our members. We have a very clear and unambiguous position on intersectional feminism, trans inclusion, and wider LGBTI+ issues. After a couple of years of debating what we should do to challenge our colleagues in England and Wales about this and to put pressure on them to do more, eventually it became unsustainable to say that we would continue to have the limited formal ties we have with them.

The Green Party of England and Wales has the right policy and their leadership is in the right place, although could perhaps be more pro-active, but they have not dealt with a toxic minority who don’t represent party policy and who are extremely divisive and hostile on this issue. If they do deal with it, then we look forward to normalising relationships again.

There has been a great deal of turmoil in UK politics in recent years. How do you view the state of UK democracy now?

The British hard right doesn’t openly display the authoritarian fascism that we see in some countries where the far right uses flags and symbols and the paraphernalia of the far-right. The British equivalent is more genteel and patriarchal but it is no less dangerous. Some members of the Conservatives have fascist attitudes and will very happily punch down against any marginalised minority they can find if they think it’s going to win them populist support in the press or parts of the public where those attitudes have been deliberately stoked and hostilities have been created.

This UK government has breached human rights when it comes to deporting asylum seekers, for example, and it has profoundly undermined devolution which the Scottish public voted for more than 20 years ago. If we say that democracy and the rule of law need to be defended in the face of attacks from authoritarian regimes, we also have to say that democracy must be defended against apparently more civilised regimes which are also undermining democracy.

Categories: H. Green News

California’s storms are almost over. Its reckoning with flood insurance is about to begin.

Grist - Wed, 01/18/2023 - 03:45

California has nearly seen the last of the relentless sequence of storms that inundated the state since late December, leading to tens of thousands of evacuations, at least 20 deaths, and an estimated $1 billion in damages

From failed levees in the Central Valley counties of Merced and Sacramento to overflowing rivers along the coast, the rains touched almost every part of the state, with many areas receiving four to six times above average precipitation for the past several weeks. Mudslides closed major roads, thousands of homes were flooded, and trees knocked out power lines, with over 13,000 electric customers yet to regain service as of Tuesday afternoon. 

Meteorologists expect that by Thursday, the last storm, this time a weaker one, will have cleared from the northern and central parts of California. But in the coming weeks, as flood waters recede and the rains’ full impact comes into view, many residents may find themselves facing a second crisis: A widespread lack of flood insurance that will leave thousands of homeowners grappling with the cost of repairing and rebuilding homes. 

“California is a place where the preoccupation about water is about scarcity, not abundance,” said Rebecca Elliott, a professor at the London School of Economics who wrote a book about flood insurance in the United States. “Many, many thousands of Californians will assume that they have flood coverage and find out that they don’t.” 

Standard homeowners insurance does not include flood coverage, even though, according to a recent survey, 47 percent of Americans assume that it does. Just 1.33 percent of California households have standalone policies through the National Flood Insurance Program, a federal-run system that makes up 95 percent of flood coverage in the United States. The share of private flood policies in California is even smaller. Yet as of earlier this month, 90 percent of the state’s population was under flood watch.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, requires homeowners with federally-underwritten mortgages to buy flood insurance if they are in what it designates as “special flood hazard areas.” That’s essentially the 100-year flood plain, or places that have a 1 percent annual chance of flooding. But the maps FEMA uses to delineate these areas are wildly out of date. First Street Foundation, a nonprofit that models flood risk, found there are 5.9 million property owners nationwide who face substantial flood risk outside FEMA’s official hazard areas. 

“I show them the topography maps,” said Nick Ramirez, an insurance agent based in Los Angeles, of his clients who aren’t required by law to purchase flood insurance. “I say, ‘Do you want to protect yourself?’ Some say yes, and some just roll the dice.”

Streets and homes flooded in the Felton Grove neighborhood of Santa Cruz, California, on January 9. Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images

FEMA’s California maps, most of which were last updated in the 1980s and early 90s, if not before, leave out about 80 percent of the state’s rivers and streams. They also don’t account for the worsening effects of climate change, which include expanded flood risk as the climate system shifts towards hydrological extremes. Part of the reason they haven’t been updated is the expense. Communities have also often resisted expanding the flood zones to avoid costs for homeowners and restrictions on development.

Where FEMA does require mandatory insurance, the policy is underenforced. Flood insurance requirements don’t apply to mortgages that have been paid off or to properties purchased in cash. And experts say it’s common for homeowners to let their policies lapse because mortgage companies don’t check up on them. According to Elliott, the fact that lenders securitize their mortgages may be one reason for why they aren’t paying close attention. “They’re chopping up those mortgages, bundling them, and selling them on,” she said.

In recent years, the number of Californians holding flood insurance policies has been declining in line with a national pattern. Experts attribute this in large part to premium costs, and particularly to an increase in insurance rates that occurred starting October 2021 under FEMA’s new pricing methodology called Risk Rating 2.0.

The National Flood Insurance Program, or NFIP, has long struggled with debt, the result of worsening climate-fueled disasters paired with static policy premiums. With Risk Rating 2.0, FEMA re-assessed flood risk using independent models and then adjusted pricing to better reflect today’s trends. The idea, according to the agency, was to make insurance more equitable, so that people in flood zones paid more in line with their level of risk, and people outside wouldn’t have to subsidize them. (The new maps did not impact who was required to hold a policy.)

The result, however, has been a precipitous decline in policies. “We had been seeing a nationwide drop in the number of people with flood insurance [for several years],” said Nick VinZant, a senior research analyst at QuoteWizard, an online platform that allows customers to shop for and compare insurance prices. “It really started to drop as soon as FEMA put Risk Rating 2.0 in place.” 

Though the state as a whole paid less under the new program than it had previously, 73 percent of California policyholders saw a price increase, in some cases as substantial as $100 a month. Between March 2021 and August 2022, 11 percent of state policyholders dropped the plan, one of the largest decreases nationwide, according to VinZant. (Nationwide, the program lost 6 percent of policyholders in the same period).

Residents sweep water out of a flooded home on January 11 in Planada, California. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

FEMA does not provide zip code-level data on policies in force, so it’s difficult to confirm that the places where premiums rose the most are the same places where people dropped the NFIP. But most experts think that’s what happened. “FEMA was very opaque. The numbers they gave were limited, so it’s hard to track,” said Nicholas Pinter, a professor and associate director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis. “There is strong suspicion that the increase in premiums has driven an exodus from the program.” 

Another driver of the exodus: the multi-year mega-drought drying up rivers and reservoirs across the Western U.S. Typically, flood insurance policy enrollments increase after a flood and go down during dry years, when people forget about the potential for deluge. “Right now, my phone is ringing off the hook,” said Ramirez.

FEMA is running with the drought explanation. “There are many factors that could influence this drop in policyholders, including the economic impact of the pandemic, inflation, the housing market, affordability, or purchasing flood insurance from the private market,” David Maurstad, deputy associate administrator of resilience for FEMA, told Grist in a statement. “For California in particular, [it may be] due to the several years of drought in the area and the belief that flooding may not impact them.”

Given the increasing frequency of floods and the increasing cost of repair, Elliott believes it’s unrealistic to expect the National Flood Insurance Program to function like a private insurance company, charging enough to cover its risk and break even on its losses, while still being affordable. In California, the average cost of this insurance is $779 per year, though rates vary by region. Research by Pinter and his colleagues shows that besides a small number of waterfront communities like Malibu that have a lot of at-risk properties and high incomes, most of the state’s flood exposure is in low-income areas. 

The national program tries to incentivize more flood-resilient building and planning by offering grants and lower rates to people and communities who take certain steps to protect their homes. But those investments can be costly and the agency has been criticized for not making enough support available and accessible. “We’ve been expecting [the NFIP] to underwrite the American dream of homeownership while also expecting it to signal risk, nudge people away from the water’s edge, and reduce overall exposure to flood risk,” said Elliott. “It has always had a really hard time doing all those things.” She says a better approach would be to think of insurance as just one part of the larger strategy and set of policies protecting people from floods. 

On Saturday, President Biden approved California Governor Gavin Newsom’s request for a major disaster declaration in three counties, following the state’s emergency declaration for 41 of its 58 counties. Merced, Sacramento, and Santa Cruz are now eligible for grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to help cover uninsured property losses, and additional forms of support. More counties may be added as officials continue to assess the damage across the state.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline California’s storms are almost over. Its reckoning with flood insurance is about to begin. on Jan 18, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

Thousands of protestors fought the expansion of a German coal mine — in vain

Grist - Wed, 01/18/2023 - 03:30

A nearly weeklong standoff between German police and climate activists occupying the German village of Lützerath ended Monday with hundreds of protestors evicted from the area. The tiny hamlet of Lützerath is set to be demolished for the expansion of the Garzweiler coal mine, and some activists have occupied the village for as long as two years to prevent development by residing in abandoned homes, building treehouse blockades, and fortifying buildings with dumpsters and camper vans. Roughly 1,000 police officers were sent to address the protests. Organizers say 35,000 people attended; police estimate it was closer to 15,000.

Though the last two activists in Lützerath vacated their self-dug tunnels beneath the village Monday, protests against the mine continued Tuesday in Cologne and Dusseldorf, where activists glued themselves to the cities’ main streets and government buildings, respectively. 

German officials argue that expanding coal production is necessary to maintain energy security, given cuts to Russian gas supplies due to the war in Ukraine. But climate activists argue that the deal goes against Germany’s commitments to reduce carbon emissions.   

The Garzweiler mine covers 14 square miles and has already swallowed towns, historic buildings, and a wind farm. Plans for mining in the area were approved in 1995, and in 2013, German courts ruled that energy firm RWE, which owns the mine, could expand their production area and demolish any towns in its path. The roughly 100 residents of Lützerath have all relocated — the last farmer left after losing efforts to fight an eviction order. 

Germany’s coal production has ramped up in recent years, increasing by nearly 20 million tons between 2020 and 2021 after a decade of declines, and Bloomberg reports that the country has reopened coal-fired power plants, despite plans to phase them out by 2038. 

According to the Associated Press, studies indicate that around 110 million metric tons of coal sit underneath Lützerath, and RWE reports that Garzweiler extracts up to 30 million tons of lignite every year. That the mine produces lignite is a major sticking point for climate activists, given that it’s the “dirtiest” form of coal. 

For critics of the mine, the concern goes beyond the demolition of homes and the challenge to land rights. In an interview with CNN, recently evicted activist Dina Hamida said, “in the end, it’s not about the village, it’s about the coal staying in the ground and we’re going to fight for that as long as it takes.”

Though RWE has legal access to the land, activists say the law is on their side, citing a 2021 ruling that mandated the German government prioritize actions to cut emissions. 

But last October, Germany’s Economy and Climate Ministry, led by the environmentally-minded Greens party, made a deal with RWE to address this issue. The company agreed to phase out all coal mining by 2030 instead of 2038 and prevent the demolition of five other villages and three farmsteads. In exchange, RWE would be allowed to continue expansion over Lützerath and generate coal which, they say, is needed to get the country through the winter.

Activists argue that it could take at least two years to develop coal reserves under Lützerath — much too late to relieve any economic stress from the ongoing war in Ukraine. They also reference research from the German Institute for Economic Research, which suggests that other coalfields could be used instead, albeit at a higher cost to RWE. A study published by the University of Flensburg last month, says that the need for coal from underneath Lützerath was “nonexistent.”

Climate activist Greta Thunberg attended the protests, criticizing the German governments’ actions. 

“It’s very weird to see the German government, including the Green party, make deals and compromise with companies like RWE, with fossil fuel companies, when they should rather be held accountable for all the damage and destruction they have caused,” Thunberg told the AP.

She was later detained by police. 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Thousands of protestors fought the expansion of a German coal mine — in vain on Jan 18, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

England finally joins Europe in banning single-use plastic foodware

Grist - Wed, 01/18/2023 - 03:15

Restaurants and cafes throughout England will soon be barred from using some of the most common single-use plastics — a ban green groups called necessary, insufficient, and long overdue.

The long-anticipated regulation, announced Saturday, makes it illegal for those establishments to sell or distribute certain kinds of polystyrene cups and food packaging, as well as plastic plates, trays, bowls, and cutlery designed to be used once and thrown away. It takes effect in October.  

The new policy is “a really positive step in the right direction … but we’re coming to the party late,” said Steve Hynd, media and policy manager for the British environmental organization City to Sea. The 27 members of the European Union have been subject to a bloc-wide directive since July 2021 banning the items included in England’s new policy, and several have proposed additional legislation to curb plastic waste.

With Scotland implementing its own restrictions on single-use plastic plates and cutlery last year and Wales advancing similar legislation, environmental groups said England was “the only country in Europe” without a ban. Last month they submitted a petition signed by more than 118,000 people urging British policymakers to catch up. 

England uses more than 5 billion single-use plates and cutlery items each year, according to the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs. Most are made of plastic and end up incinerated, in landfills, or tossed aside as litter that leaches hazardous chemicals or breaks down into microplastics that contaminate the food chain. Because they are made primarily from fossil fuels, their production releases planet-warming greenhouse gases and disproportionately exposes marginalized communities to pollution

Thérèse Coffey, England’s environment secretary, said in a statement that the new rules would “continue our vital work to protect the environment for future generations.” She touted previous efforts to reduce plastic waste, including a 2020 ban on straws and drink stirrers made from the material, as well as a tax on single-use grocery bags.

Some environmental advocates have called for England to clarify whether this latest ban includes bioplastics, as the EU’s does. Such products are made from things like corn, sugarcane, agricultural waste, or seaweed. However, they pose many of the same problems as conventional plastics, while raising new ones — the stickiest of which is using land to raise those raw materials rather than food, says, according to Britta Baechler, associate director of ocean plastics research for the nonprofit Ocean Conservancy.

Beyond that clarification, Hynd said more systemic action is needed to substantiate England’s pledge to eliminate “unavoidable” plastic waste by 2043. He called for a legally binding target to halve single-use plastic production by 2025 and for the expansion of systems that encourage reusable alternatives. A deposit return program, for example, could incentivize reuse by charging customers a deposit when they buy a bottled beverage and refunding it when the bottle is returned. (The U.K. announced it would pursue such a program in 2018, but officials later said it wouldn’t be implemented in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland until at least 2024 — in part because of ongoing economic disruptions from COVID-19.)

Such policies should be seen as an opportunity to create a cleaner U.K., Hynd said. He pictures a future in which it’s possible to walk through a park without seeing plastic littering the landscape or to sit on a beach without watching it wash ashore. Plastic bans, he said, are only part of a “much bigger journey to achieving that vision.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline England finally joins Europe in banning single-use plastic foodware on Jan 18, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

How far can $25 million go to relocate a community that’s disappearing into Alaska’s melting permafrost?

High Country News - Wed, 01/18/2023 - 01:00
A recent Interior Department grant aims to help residents in Newtok move to higher ground, but it’s just a sliver of what’s needed.
Categories: H. Green News

Tackling the UK’s Insecurity Crisis

Green European Journal - Tue, 01/17/2023 - 06:35

Spiralling cost of living and energy prices, housing shortage, climate disasters have fermented a generalised sense of insecurity in recent years. In this analysis, researchers Hannah Webster and Toby Murray focus on economic insecurity in the UK and neo-liberal policies as the long-standing cause of this outcome. Considering the options for restoring people’s sense of security, they draw lessons from public policies elsewhere, including on basic income.

As we enter 2023, and reflect on the year that came before, it’s impossible not to feel overwhelmed by the multitude of crises that continue to battle for our attention. Soaring inflation and the rising cost-of-living have merely added to staples of our news cycle: energy, housing, climate and democracy to name just a few. Multiple crises shouldn’t divide our efforts though; instead, we might stand to gain by exploring the shared theme of insecurity underpinning them.

Understanding economic insecurity

Insecurity is a broad term, encompassing different aspects of people’s lives. Our work focuses on the subset “economic security”, which at the RSA think tank we more formally define as “the degree of confidence that a person can have in maintaining a decent quality of life, now and in the future, given their economic and financial circumstances”. By contrast, economic insecurity, put simply, is the experience or anticipation of economic hardship. It can be viewed through its manifestation in individual or household experiences, and can mean anything from living in poverty to facing eviction, living with a health condition or growing your family without access to childcare.

Economic insecurity is an important, but often overlooked experience, and one referenced far less than others like inequality and poverty. But in the context of today’s crises, understanding economic insecurity, at an individual and collective level, is an essential tool.

This is because it gives an insight into how the current economy feels. It is a dynamic measure that encompasses how people felt in the past, how they feel in the present, and how they feel about the future. It is a subjective measure, which means we prioritise what people tell us, as opposed to where they sit according to an (often arbitrary) baseline. And it captures a range of experience, where people’s individual situations (including their access to assets such as savings or state support) shapes confidence and, in turn, their sense of security.

The neoliberal roots of insecurity

In the United Kingdom, collective confidence in the future is at rock-bottom. In August 2022, just 32 per cent of UK citizens felt the country was headed in the right direction, whilst just 29 per cent said they’d describe the UK’s economic situation as “good”. This is reflected across other European countries, with Hungary, Poland, Belgium, and the Netherlands all exhibiting similarly low levels of confidence in their country’s future. Even Germany, the most confident EU country in this poll, shows just 43 per cent of its citizens think the country is heading in the right direction.

Why?

Fundamentally, a crisis in economic security is a crisis in how people feel about the world and opportunities around them. These anxieties can be traced back to the introduction and subsequent hegemony of the political economy of neoliberalism. At its core, neoliberalism is a mode of governance that prioritises personal responsibility over collective security. In this way, it might be viewed as anti-security as it centres individual capacity to survive economic shocks, whilst minimising our collective capacity to overcome them.

A quick look back to 1987 leads us to Margaret Thatcher’s infamous proclamation that “too many children and people have been given to understand ‘I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!’… who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.” Her words epitomise the system we live in; a system which, rather than focus on our collective ability to avert or withstand economic shocks, places onus on the individual to be resilient in the face of system-wide problems that are bigger than any individual.

Policy decisions driving insecurity

More than just a cultural tone set by Thatcher and others, it is tangible policy decisions that have produced a crisis in security. In 2018, research by the Friends Provident Foundation argued that public wealth in the 1980s was used to subsidise consumption (through tax cuts) rather than as investment in public infrastructure. Profits from North Sea oil and from privatising state-owned companies were used to fund tax cuts for (often wealthy) individuals rather than invested in public policies. The policy decision behind this ensured underinvestment in public infrastructure and social security, meaning collective security within the UK was fractured, rather than constructed across places, communities, and generations.

In the UK, core parts of our economic security have been undermined. Our housing, energy and ecological policies have been lacking, with low investment in secure and sustainable homes, energy sources, and infrastructure. Between 1979 and 2022, 2.5 million social houses were sold in the UK, with little investment in building more since. Twice as many homes (4.4 million households in total) are now rented privately compared to 15 years ago, representing a shift from the security of social housing to the insecurity and individualisation of renting privately.

While energy price increase elsewhere is related to a complex set of factors, gas price spikes in the UK stem from a lack of investment in diversifying energy sources and energy storage. While countries like France and Germany have fourteen- and eight-weeks storage of gas reserves respectively, the UK has just four days.

The UK’s approach to the climate emergency, again, shows a chronic unwillingness to invest in collective security. While many future-facing UK policies might rank well in terms of their environmental outlook, research from IPPR concludes that the UK’s own ecological security, or our ability to weather environmental threats, requires a healthy and restored natural environment. Yet, the UK has lost more of its natural biodiversity than almost anywhere in western Europe, and more than all the G7 nations.

Useful lessons from Finland

A neoliberal approach to security has been dominant across our global economy, sometimes even enforced by international gatekeepers. This recent story of Barbados’ response to IMF-imposed austerity is a clear example of how dominant anti-security culture still is. However, several countries have experience in prioritising a collective approach to security. While no country offers a perfect approach to providing economic security, some offer better lessons than others. Take, for example, Finland.

In comparison to the housing, energy and ecological policy decisions made in the UK context, Finland prioritises greater security for its citizens in many key economic areas. In housing, Finland, has invested heavily in building new houses over a long period, exceeding house building targets in the Helsinki area by 15 per cent in the years between 2016 and 2019. Further, a model of cooperative ownership, “housing companies”, heavily encouraged by government investment, ensures that risk associated with home ownership remain low for a large percentage of the population, and those who are full owners have historically received investment to help them avoid repossession or eviction. For renters, there’s no maximum income ceiling for social housing tenants. Tenancies can be unlimited, and tenants are able to claim damages and compensation for the cost of eviction. Any eviction requires at least three-months notice from the landlord, but over six-months notice after a one-year tenancy.

Compared to a UK market where renters have, until recently, had little protection from no fault evictions, and social housing has become a minority provision. This has kept housing affordable and accessible for a large proportion of citizens. Between 2015 and 2020, house prices in Finland increased roughly in line with inflation, compared to 9 per cent above inflation in the UK. Similarly, in that time the ratio between house prices and income has decreased by 5 per cent, compared to a 25 per cent increase for the UK. Further, thanks to a “housing first” approach to homelessness, Finland now has a homeless population of just 0.08 per cent of their population (including those in temporary accommodation). A large of part this is due to what Bengtsson et al call housing policy as a branch of social policy, or housing policy that prioritises “those with a weak position in the housing market”. Finland has prioritised collective security in housing over and above individual resilience.

While Finland’s energy consumption remains high, a mixed approach to energy production focused on domestic supply and state investment in power generation and transmission means that energy costs as a percentage of income remain low for all citizens. While use of fossil fuels in Finland is low, state intervention in the face of the gas crisis in 2022 has also prioritised more vulnerable citizens, meaning that the increase in energy prices as a percentage of total household spending is higher for the richest 20 per cent of the country, than it is for the poorest 20 per cent. This is a trend not seen elsewhere in Europe.

Finland’s relationship to ecological security is more complicated. Despite strong environmental policies that have prioritised a shift in energy usage, and protection of natural resources like clean air and clean water bodies, biodiversity in Finland has suffered similar pressures to the UK, particularly driven by the forestry industry. However, Finland has taken steps to address this. Policies that prioritise habitat protection ensured that Finland met the 2020 Aichi target on protected terrestrial areas, and in 2020 Finland announced that funding for nature conservation has increased by 100 million euros annually.

Despite the lack of data on how many Fins think their country is on the right track, Fins are consistently ranked as the happiest with their country in the world. The reasons for this sentiment will always be complex, especially as this does not mean that Finnish people don’t have many concerns about the trajectory of their country. However, Finland consistently shows high levels of trust in public institutions, and a sense of security that comes from a political and economic culture based on cooperation and support.

Back to basic income

The difference between these two nations is more complex than a single article can capture. However, Finland’s success hints at the power of an economic policy model that prioritises security.

Such a model would focus on long-term decision making, bringing benefit in the present and sustaining it in the future. It would centre the experience of the economy and the people within it over the economic outcomes themselves, and could tangibly show how things can get better for those experiencing a period of hardship or an unexpected change in their lives.

Providing economic security and tackling the security crisis requires more than a silver bullet. The considerations above must be embedded in various economic and social policies. However, a universal basic income might be one of the most advanced in terms of the evidence collated from modelling and trials. A recent trial in Finland provides an interesting case study. The Finnish basic income pilot[JK1]  (which provided 2000 randomly picked unemployed people a guaranteed, unconditional income) demonstrated that this security-focused payment had a positive effect on the mental and physical health as well as the overall wellbeing of participants. It also demonstrated higher levels of trust from participants and their own future work prospects.

Our work has recently explored what a Universal Basic Income might look like in the United Kingdom. Research published in October 2022, in a partnership between the RSA think tank and academic partners led by the University of Northumbria, demonstrated how an alternative social security system might fundamentally shift the economic wellbeing and health of the next generation. Modelling found that a cost-neutral basic income – that is a universal monthly payment that can be paid for without additional funding or taxation models, approximately 60 pound sterling a week for single adults – would more than half child and pensioner poverty. With greater investment, more generous payments reaching a minimum income standard of 230 pound sterling a week for single adults would reduce both by more than three quarters.

On top of this, a shift to universal payments would provide much needed confidence, and in turn security, that in times of hardship, people will receive the support they need. A security net that prioritises initiatives like basic income will surely reverse a long-term trend in declining security for citizens and provide a long-term solution that cuts many of the crisis we’re currently experiencing off at the source.

Categories: H. Green News

Indigenous Lands Among the Amazon's Last Carbon Sinks

Yale Environment 360 - Tue, 01/17/2023 - 06:31

Parts of the Amazon managed by Indigenous people removed more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than they released, while areas not managed by Indigenous people saw widespread deforestation, producing more carbon dioxide than they removed, a report finds.

Read more on E360 →

Categories: H. Green News

One River Dies, Another Is Born

The Revelator - Tue, 01/17/2023 - 05:00

Jaime Lucian dos Santos Filho was born and raised in a stilt house on the Araguari River, in the north Brazil village of Bom Amigo. His family and the several dozen other inhabitants of the town ate fish from the Araguari, ranched buffalo on its banks, and watered subsistence gardens with it. When they went shopping, they took a boat.

In flood season the Araguari became a mighty torrent, more than two miles across. The rest of the year it just flowed along. That started to change in the early 2000s, when Filho noticed the river’s current slackening. Sand bars began to appear off the town’s docks, and then gradually grew. By 2013 the riverbed of the Araguari — all the way to its mouth at the Atlantic, 12 miles away — had filled with silt, and the river no longer flowed past Bom Amigo.

Filho says extra land appeared, but it was a mixed blessing. “The fields opened up for cattle. There are some more land for us to plant. But the water became scarcer.”

Today, miles of the Araguari’s old bed flood for a few rainy months. They turn dry and stone-hard the rest of the year.

Robbed of the reason for the town’s existence, residents moved away.

Fihlo’s daughter-in-law, Joselina Barbosa Tavares, said, “I never imagined that a mighty river like that could ever dry.”

A maritime buoy rests on a floodplain that was once Araguari riverbed north of Bom Amigo village. (Dado Galdieri/Hilaea Media)

At about the same time, villagers 20 miles away in a town called Junco were uprooted by a different river’s transformation. In that case they were inundated with water, not deprived of it.

In 2012 Domingo Maciel da Costa was hired to guard a water buffalo ranch just east of Junco, on the north branch of the Amazon. A small river called the Urucurituba Channel ran through the land.

The Urucurituba has changed dramatically during da Costa’s life. In the mid 1990s, before it even had an official name, it was about 200 feet across and ran only a few miles from its headwaters in a palm jungle to its mouth, where it emptied into the Amazon. After that it started metastasizing. By the time da Costa took the ranching job, the river was a quarter of a mile from shore to shore and 25 miles long.

And it kept growing. On some days it grew half a dozen feet wider.

Sitting in a boat bobbing in the Urucurituba, half a mile from the nearest land, and recalling his years at the ranch, da Costa waves his hand around. “In a short time, it became this monster you see here,” he says.

He was floating on top of where he used to work, which had long ago been swallowed up by the river. “This is where our house, our pasture, our land, stood,” he says, looking into the water.

Former buffalo herder Domingo Maciel da Costa floats on a boat over where his land plot once stood. (Dado Galdieri/Hilaea Media)

Where did this monster come from? Brazilian scientists studying the Araguari River and the Urucurituba Channel have concluded that the silting up of the former and the ongoing expansion of the latter are flip sides of the same coin, caused by the same process: the combined consequence of a hydroelectric dam built far up the Araguari and the introduction of water buffalo into its flood plain.

James Leonard Best, a geology professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, says he’s startled by the rapidity of the Urucurituba and Araguari’s metamorphoses. Still, he expects more surprises such as these in the future, as human encroachment on the channels and shores of the world’s rivers increases. In a 2019 paper he published in the journal Nature Geoscience, he warned about extensive river-sand extraction, accelerated hydroelectric power plant construction, introduction of non-native species and other, “anthropogenic stressors.” He predicted that “large-scale, and potentially irreparable, transformations may ensue in periods of years to decades, with ecosystem collapse being possible in some big rivers.”

Last April I traveled with Brazilian photojournalist Dado Galdieri to see what forces blocked the Araguari and gnaw the shores of Junco. We hired a squat wooden freighter and crew in Macapá, the capital of the state of Amapá, and set off.

Twelve hours downstream of Macapá, Marlon Pantoja Cardoso, our captain, steered into the north fork of the Amazon. Right past Junco we entered a gap in the shore that looked to me like a broad bay burrowing into the jungle. Cardoso said this was the mouth of the Urucurituba Channel, nearly a mile across. He’d heard that the blockage of the Araguari’s mouth caused the Urucurituba to swell, and it made sense to him.

“The water had to go somewhere, and it came here,” he said.

We headed up the Urucurituba. Where the forest had once stood, broad wetlands flanked the river’s deep channel. A flock of scarlet ibis, startled by our motor’s throaty roar, took flight in a shimmering cloud of neon orange. Water buffalo chewed water hyacinth and eyed us warily. Some of them trudged in small groups snout-to-tail through the muck.

Before leaving Macapá, I’d heard that these listless creatures — an Asian species introduced to Brazil in the 19th century — had broken down the shallow divide that had kept the Araguari and Amazon basins separate and created the Urucurituba’s Niagara-Falls-scale flow.

Alan Cunha, a professor of civil engineering at the Federal University of Amapá, explained how this had happened.

Cunha has been studying the Araguari for decades. He said the buffalo were one of two powerful forces that together stoppered the lower Araguari and opened the Urucurituba.

The Amazon and Araguari rivers occupy adjacent flood plains. Until about the early 2000s, a feeble berm a few feet high kept the rivers apart in separate basins, the former originating in the Andes and the latter in a range called the Tumucumaque mountains.

The base of these flood plains is geologically young, made of sediment too recently deposited to have solidified — or, in geologists’ terms, “consolidated.” So, Cunha said, the natural berm is “extremely fragile and vulnerable” and easy to disturb.

Encouraged by subsidies from Brazil’s military government in the 1980s, ranchers began setting water buffalo lose to graze in this region. Nobody predicted how much mischief they’d cause. About 200,000 buffalo now wander freely there. The ones we saw from the boat demonstrated why ranchers prize them: The livestock happily wade in the marshes and shallow streams. Compared to cattle, they swim better and eat more kinds of grass.

Cunha says one behavior has made water buffalo particularly damaging to the divide between the Amazon and the Araguari. He says that they march in troop-like single file, gouging trenches in soil.

Herds of buffalo roam freely around the areas between the Amazon and Araguari river basins. (Dado Galdieri/Hilaea Media)

In the decades after buffalo were introduced, their relentless hooves turned natural creeks that fill and drain with each tidal cycle into a dendritic network of waterways that extended the embryonic Urucurituba. Then, sometime in the late 2000s, the incessant stomping, compounded by ranchers’ forest-clearing and ditch-digging, broke open a path between the Urucurituba and the Araguari. The two rivers became linked, and the Araguari’s flow started running through the Urucurituba into the Amazon.

Cunha was the first scientist to report that the Urucurituba was draining the Araguari. In 2012, he took a speedboat from the upper Araguari toward the Atlantic. Near the mouth, he noticed shoals where he expected deep water. The current was far lower there than it had been where he’d started, a finding that puzzled him. River discharge generally increases downriver, with contributions from tributaries.

“How is that possible,” he thought. “Where is the water going?”

He retraced his route back upstream, looking for a missing branch draining the river. Forty-five miles from the mouth, he noticed what seemed at first like a small creek breaking away. He tied a device for measuring the current to a tree. A week later he returned to get the data. But the device was gone. So was the tree. Both had been carried off when a big hunk of shoreline slipped into the mysterious river.

“That’s when we started connecting the dots,” Cunha says. He’d discovered the headwaters of the Urucurituba Channel. And it was on its way to draining the Araguari’s full current.

He discovered that the Urucurituba was growing wider at breakneck speed. Between late 2011 and mid-2016 it widened an average of 16 feet every month. Soon it had become as wide and deep, and half as long, as the Panama Canal. The Araguari’s entire current was going through the Urucurituba to the Amazon.

“It was a huge surprise,” Cunha says. In scientific terms, the Amazon had “captured” the Araguari.

Maps data: Google, Image Landsat/Copernicus

Grazing buffalo kicked, and their ditch-digging ranchers opened, the natural dike separating the Amazon and Araguari basins. But Cunha says the animals and their keepers didn’t silt up the lower Araguari and open the Urucurituba all by themselves. They got help from the Coaracy Nunes power plant, the first of three large hydroelectric installations built on the Araguari.

Valdenira Santos, a geologist at the Institute of Scientific and Technological Research in Macapá, says the builders of the dams “did not consider the downstream effect the hydroelectrical plants would cause.” Santos wrote her graduate dissertation on the Araguari. The flow of water just upstream of the Araguari’s power plants, she says, varies greatly between rainy and dry seasons. Reservoirs built for each of these plants smooth out these variations, stabilizing power production. But suppressing natural extremes in river flow also altered the movement of sediment near the river’s mouth.

One day soon after our excursion up the Urucurituba, Galdieri and I sat in a speedboat mid-river in the Amazon’s north channel. Railan Souza, the boat’s pilot, scanned the line where the river met the sky. We were on a mission to see one of the region’s natural wonders, which also plays a role in explaining changes in the region’s plumbing.

A wave sprinted toward us, rising higher and cresting in a line of white spray. It was the tidal bore, known in Brazil as the pororoca, a train of waves that race up Amazon twice a day. When the moon is full, as it had been the previous night, the waves are biggest. The frothing torrent soon licked at our prop. It must have been at least six feet high. Souza cast a nervous glance behind us, first gunning the engine, then slowing down to let the wave lift us up. Hooting with joy, he matched our speed to it, perching us atop the wall of water. The crest’s alabaster color belied the contents of the liquid. Tidal bores bear incredible amounts of sediment mixed into their convulsions, sometimes 50 times as much silt as smoothly moving water.

Every year the Amazon discharges half a billion tons of silt into the Atlantic, about 10 times the annual mass of sand and gravel mined in the United State. A plume of this material, easily seen from space, spreads 60 miles out to sea and up the coast, right past the Araguari’s old mouth, like coffee grounds spilled on a sheet of blue glass.

An oceanic canal enters the sedimented Araguari river mouth in Amapa, Brazil, April 22, 2022. (Dado Galdieri/Hilaea Media)

Before the Araguari got clogged, it also had pororocas. Visitors came from all over the world to surf on them. The waves also carried thousands of tons of sediment from the Amazon’s silt plume upstream and dropped it on the riverbed.

Cunha says the river’s current and ebb tides used to wash these deposits back to sea, keeping the Araguari’s channel and mouth clear. But he says the natural process of deposition and removal of sediment was upset when the Coaracy Nunes plant went online in 1976. During the dry season, when the river was already running at its slowest, powerplant operators held back water to let it accumulate in its reservoir.

There’s virtually no data about the Araguari from back then, but Cunha says it seems that when enfeebled by power plant operators, the river could no longer flush accumulated sediment out its mouth. As silt filled the Araguari’s lower reach, the river’s original bed was no longer the easiest path for the current, and so a portion of the flow drained into the Urucurituba instead. He suspects that silt released by the gradually widening Urucurituba compounded the problem. This material, suspended in the flow, was carried up the Urucurituba with tides running up from the Amazon’s mouth and then dropped into the lower Araguari. And, in a vicious cycle, this extra load blocked the river’s mouth more and coaxed even more water into the Uricurituba, eventually completely blocking the Araguari’s passage to the Atlantic.

The Urucurituba continues growing wider, flooding forests on either shore and advancing deeper into Junco. Da Costa, who first showed me the “monster,” says the town has also lost 25 acres of palms, about 14 soccer fields’ worth, that once produced lucrative açaí berries, the superfood that is among the region’s major cash crops.

Cunha says the Araguari near where the Urucurituba Channel begins is also widening. In the town of Pracúuba, a short distance upstream from that fork, many residents are in constant fear that their houses will collapse into the river. Scores of people have dismantled their homes and rebuilt them farther inland.

José Freitas, who lives near the Urucurituba, says he’s collecting construction materials for building a new house when the river gets too close. But he can’t say how he’ll afford a move.

“Everywhere we’d go there’s already an owner. And we don’t have money buy new land.”

James Best, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign geologist, says millions of people across the planet could soon find themselves uprooted like the residents of Junco, Bom Amigo and Pracúuba. Rivers everywhere are straining under the combined assault of multitudes of insults — from dams to pollution to shoreline disturbance.

“These are going to impact humans living in riverine corridors big-time.”

Geologist Valdenira Santos sees the transformation of the region as a cautionary tale — and not just for people living in river basins.

“Our biggest challenge now, as planet, is to be able to coexist along these natural processes in a wiser fashion,” she says. “Human beings shouldn’t have the illusion that we can tame all of nature. It will be always stronger than us.”

Reporting for this story was funded with support from the Pulitzer Center, and Abby Rockefeller and Lee Halprin.

Previously in The Revelator:

5 Reasons to Rethink the Future of Dams

The post One River Dies, Another Is Born appeared first on The Revelator.

Categories: H. Green News

The secretive legal weapon that fossil fuel interests use against climate-conscious countries

Grist - Tue, 01/17/2023 - 03:45

For over a decade, debate has raged over the Keystone XL pipeline project, which aimed to transport Canadian tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico. After approving the project’s initial stages, the Obama administration rejected a permit allowing the pipeline to cross the national border in 2015.

However, the energy company backing the project didn’t take no for an answer: TransCanada soon sued the U.S. for $15 billion dollars — the future expected profits it claimed the pipeline would have earned, in addition to the $3.1 billion it had already invested in the project. The company was able to do so because the North American Free Trade Agreement, the treaty known as NAFTA that the U.S. signed with Canada and Mexico in 1994, included a clause about something called an investor-state dispute settlement, or ISDS — a closed-door legal process that’s an often overlooked, but increasingly urgent, hurdle to addressing climate change. ISDS mechanisms are included in many other bilateral and international trade agreements, allowing a country to be sued by investors from other member countries if it takes any subsequent actions that adversely affect those investments.

The threat of this liability has hung over the pipeline conflict ever since: When President Trump signed an executive order in 2017 reversing course and allowing Keystone XL to move forward, TransCanada announced that it would suspend its ISDS case against the U.S. for 30 days — exactly the deadline for the decision on their new permit application. In March of that year, the new permit was approved, and TransCanada dropped its ISDS claim. 

Corporations’ ability to threaten this kind of financial liability is creating growing problems for countries looking to tackle climate change and restrict fossil fuel extraction, says Kyla Tienhaara, the Canada Research Chair in Economy and Environment at Queen’s University in Ontario. It’s far from the only recent example: Take Italy, which banned oil drilling within 12 nautical miles of its coast only to be sued by the UK-based oil company Rockhopper, which had hoped to develop a near-shore oilfield at Ombrina Mare, off the coast of Abruzzo. This summer, an international tribunal authorized to adjudicate investor-state disputes ordered the Italian government to compensate the firm $210 million pounds.

Tienhaara and her colleagues recently published a study in the peer-reviewed academic journal Science finding that global efforts to limit new oil and gas developments could generate as much as $340 billion in legal claims from fossil fuel investors seeking to recoup their losses. (To put this in perspective, the Green Climate Fund, an international mechanism established to help developing countries adapt to climate change, has a portfolio valued at $11.3 billion.) Already, fossil fuel industries represent a large and growing number of the plaintiffs in these kinds of disputes: In 2020, around 20 percent of ISDS cases were brought by oil and gas companies. 

These settlements are decided in a private legal process. Unlike public judicial systems, these tribunals are typically run by three arbitrators chosen jointly by the disputing parties. These people tend to be repeatedly selected from a small group of experts in corporate law, and at times they act as lawyers for an investor in one case and arbitrators deciding the case in another, though the cases may be similar or even simultaneous — a practice known as “double hatting.”

Because ISDS systems are written into thousands of different treaties, each with different wording, there’s also no system of precedence. Just because arbitrators decide something in one case doesn’t mean that logic has to be applied to another. Proceedings can be kept confidential, and there is no way to appeal a tribunal’s decision.

Tieenhaara argues that the specter of being sued for making decisions that inhibit the profits of companies and investors has a chilling effect on countries’ efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. New Zealand, for example, recently said that it could not join the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance, an international consortium of governments working to phase out fossil fuels, because doing so “would have run afoul of investor-state settlements.” Countries in the developing world are even less able to afford the fiscal risk of being on the hook for lost profits.

As of 2017, the average amount awarded in an ISDS case was $504 million. Recently, however, there have been some exorbitant outliers, like a 2019 case in which Pakistan was ordered to pay $5.9 billion to the Australian Tethyan Copper Company for lost future profits after the country denied its lease. (The company had only invested about $150 million in the project to date.) The decision, which came down just one week after the International Monetary Fund approved a loan of almost exactly the $6 billion Pakistan was about to lose, represented the equivalent of 40 percent of the country’s cash reserves in foreign currency. 

The annual United Nations conference COP27 concluded in November with a broad agreement that wealthy, developed countries have a financial obligation to support poorer countries that have contributed relatively little to causing climate change as they adapt to its consequences. Yet those latter countries also bear the majority of the financial risk stemming from potential ISDS claims. Tienhaara recently worked on an analysis, published in the peer-reviewed journal Climate Policy in December, which found that the developing world faces enormous liabilities if it cancels potential fossil fuel projects. Mozambique, for instance, which has substantial offshore gas reserves, currently has an ISDS risk of $29 billion — nearly twice its annual national income. 

“The system is unbalanced toward investors,” said Lea Di Salvatore, a legal researcher at the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment, affiliated with Columbia University. Di Salvatore recently analyzed 29 of Mozambique’s gas, coal, and oil projects and found the majority are protected by ISDS clauses. “Are we really expecting Mozambique to take action against TotalEnergies or ExxonMobil, who have all the political and economic power?” Tienhaara added that many other African countries are in a similarly precarious position, forced to choose between climate action and expensive payouts.

There are at least 2,500 investment treaties globally, many written with decades-old policy priorities in mind. Supporters of these international agreements suggest that they provide legal stability that can spur investors to commit to useful projects that might not otherwise find funding — including those critical to renewable energy development. But the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment argued in a December report that investment treaties “are neither effective nor decisive in attracting investment in renewables to developing countries.”

Instead, the authors recommend governments focus on establishing internal regulatory frameworks and strengthening domestic judicial systems to protect investors. Tienhaara believes that states should go further by taking steps to terminate existing treaties and developing binding rules to limit the amount of compensation that can be awarded to investors. 

The Energy Charter Treaty, or ECT, which has been ratified by over 50 primarily European countries, is the international agreement that’s the largest hurdle to enacting policies to combat climate change. Signed in 1993, it explicitly aims to protect the energy investments of its members. Historically, many investor-state disputes resulted in rulings favoring companies based in rich countries. But thanks to the ECT, European countries have recently found themselves on the receiving end of ISDS claims more frequently.

This year, many appeared to reach a breaking point. Poland announced this fall that it would withdraw from the ECT; Spain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Slovenia followed. In late November, the Council of the European Union failed to reach an agreement on modifications to the treaty to bring it into alignment with Paris Agreement climate targets that came into force in 2016. Instead, the European Parliament called for a coordinated European Union departure from the treaty altogether. 

Yet these countries may still be on the hook for claims under the ECT for another 20 years. That’s because the treaty, like many agreements with ISDS provisions, includes a “sunset clause” that extends its protections long after a state’s withdrawal. The United States is facing just such an issue currently: Though NAFTA expired in 2020, it included a sunset clause allowing investors to file disputes for three additional years. When the Biden administration canceled the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline once again in 2021, the company behind the pipeline brought back its ISDS claim. A tribunal to settle the matter was recently appointed, and the process is ongoing even as the pipe system the project would have extended gushes tens of thousands of barrels of oil into a creek in Kansas.

Advocates like Tienhaara say the recent signs of movement away from agreements like the ECT are promising, but many ISDS cases stem from countless other bilateral treaties, which likely need to be addressed individually. 

Ultimately, Tienhaara argues that investor certainty should not be prioritized above climate action. “Climate change is a global problem,” she said. “We need to care about everyone, everywhere — and have policies that aren’t just about defending our own interests.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The secretive legal weapon that fossil fuel interests use against climate-conscious countries on Jan 17, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

Brazil’s new president faces ‘scorched earth scenario’ left behind by Bolsonaro

Grist - Tue, 01/17/2023 - 03:30

It is the tradition of inaugurations in Brazil for the incoming president to ascend the ramp of the Planalto Palace, the country’s equivalent to the West Wing of the White House, and receive the presidential sash from the outgoing head of state. The gesture is meant to symbolize a peaceful transition of power. In the inauguration of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, which took place on January 1, things were a little different. In a final emulation of his political idol Donald Trump, the outgoing president, Jair Bolsonaro, often referred to as the “Trump of the tropics,” was absent. He had flown to Orlando, Florida, two days earlier for an extended vacation.

Instead, Lula used the moment to send a political message. He chose to walk the ramp with a small group of individuals meant to represent those his government will prioritize. Among them was the 90-year-old Indigenous leader Raoni Metukitire, of the Amazonian Kayapó people. Bolsonaro had attacked Raoni in a 2019 United Nations General Assembly speech, accusing him of being a pawn of foreign governments and NGOs that seek to undermine development in the Brazilian Amazon. Raoni’s presence at the Planalto signaled that Indigenous rights and protection of the environment will be high on Lula’s new presidential agenda.

“Our goal is to reach zero deforestation and zero greenhouse gas emissions in our electrical grid,” Lula said in his inaugural address to Congress, adding that Bolsonaro’s government had “destroyed environmental protections.”

Brazil’s new President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva stands next to Indigenous leader and environmentalist Raoni Metuktire at his inauguration on January 1. Sergio Lima / AFP via Getty Images

The diagnosis is an accurate one. Over four years, Bolsonaro dismantled environmental regulations, much of it through executive action, and gutted federal agencies tasked with enforcing environmental laws. His actions and rhetoric emboldened illegal miners and loggers, who felt they could act with impunity. Deforestation in the Amazon rainforest spiked 60 percent during Bolsonaro’s presidency, the highest relative increase since the beginning of measurements by satellite in 1988.

The preservation of the Amazon is crucial to the climate crisis. The rainforest was once the world’s greatest carbon sink, but because of forest clearing fires and degradation caused by rising temperatures, there are large regions of the Amazon today that emit more carbon than they absorb. The situation could get substantially worse. Studies show that if 20 to 25 percent of the Amazon is deforested, the biome would no longer be able to sustain itself. This would trigger an irreversible process of dieback that could turn the forest into a savannah in a matter of decades. Currently, 15 to 17 percent of the Amazon has already vanished.

Lula served two previous terms as president between 2003 and 2011. During this time, in stark contrast to Bolsonaro’s tenure, deforestation in the Amazon fell by a historic 67 percent. Marina Silva, a well-known environmental activist and politician in Brazil, led this crackdown as Lula’s Minister of the Environment. Silva will once again hold that office, but environmentalists say this time around the government will have to rebuild Brazilian environmental policy virtually from the ground up if it is to achieve comparable results.

The first step will be to reverse many of the changes Bolsonaro enacted though executive action. This process has already begun. On his first day in office, Lula issued a series of decrees that overturned some of Bolsonaro’s most egregious changes to environmental regulations. He reinstated environmental funding programs, restructured key agencies that had been hollowed out, and reestablished the government’s anti-deforestation plan, which had been discontinued by Bolsonaro. But there is much more work to be done.

“It’s a scorched earth scenario,” said Suely Araújo, referring to the environmental regulatory apparatus that Lula inherited from his predecessor. Araújo is a senior specialist in public policy at Observatório do Clima, a coalition of climate-focused civil society organizations. She spent the last months of 2022 working with Lula’s transition team, prepping the first steps in what is expected to be a long process of recovery. “It will take longer to rebuild these institutions than it did to destroy them.”

Early in his administration, Bolsonaro tried to dissolve the Ministry of the Environment entirely, but was unable to do so due to backlash from civil society and Congress. Instead, his administration’s strategy became to weaken the country’ scientific and environmental institutions from within. Describing this process during a ruling about a slew of changes to environmental policy by Bolsonaro’s government, a Brazilian Supreme Court Justice evoked the image of a termite infestation eating away at environmental protection agencies from the inside out.

Environmentalist and former Brazilian Environment Minister Marina Silva speaks at a conference in 2019, where she called deforestation under the Bolsonaro administration “out of control.” Silva is stepping back into the role of minister under President Lula. Juan Barreto/AFP via Getty Image

Shortly after Bolsonaro took office in 2019, Natalie Unterstell, of the watchdog group Política por Inteiro, began monitoring executive actions that had an impact on deforestation and climate change. “They were pressing buttons that sent shocks through the entire system,” she said.

Unterstell began this monitoring effort alone, keeping an updated spreadsheet, but the process soon became overwhelming due to sheer quantity. She enlisted the help of data scientists and developed an algorithm that would scrape the daily government bulletin, pinpointing the decrees that merited closer attention. In four years, Política Por Inteiro identified 2,189 executive acts that are “relevant to climate and socio-environmental policy.”

2,189 The number of executive actions taken by Jair Bolsonaro and his administration to unravel Brazil’s “climate and socio-environmental policy.”

Many of the early decrees involved institutional reform. Offices and task forces within the executive branch that had climate change or deforestation in the name were simply eliminated. Regulatory agencies were transferred wholesale from the Ministry of the Environment and put under the purview of sectors they were supposed to regulate. The Forestry Service for example, which manages nature reserves, became an agency of the Ministry of Agriculture. The National Water Agency, which regulates water resources and use, was transferred to the Ministry of Regional Development.

Bolsonaro also named loyalists friendly to logging, mining, and agribusiness interests to head key environmental agencies like the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable and Natural Resources, also known as IBAMA, the main agency involved in monitoring and enforcing laws against deforestation.

Three months into his presidency, Bolsonaro issued a decree that froze the Amazon Fund. The fund, which is bankrolled by foreign governments, aims to support Brazil’s efforts to preserve its forest and is a crucial source of financing for IBAMA. The move possibly deprived Brazil of $20 billion in funding for environmental conservation projects, according to a report from the government’s own comptroller.

A critical element of the government’s strategy was to remove civil society and the scientific community from the environmental regulatory process. In 2019, Ricardo Salles, Bolsonaro’s Minister of the Environment, issued orders that restructured the National Environment Council, or CONAMA, a body that makes key decisions relating to environmental policy in Brazil. CONAMA was traditionally composed of a diverse group of stakeholders, including business interests, scientists, NGOs, Indigenous groups, and federal, state, and local representatives. Salles downsized the council and in doing so cut seats belonging to non-business civil society organizations from 11 to 4, giving them less proportional representation.

“They would bring four or five decisions up for a vote at once, and the councils were weakened so they had the opportunity approve whatever they wanted,” said Unterstell.

The system of environmental fines, which was already inefficient before Bolsonaro took office, suffered significant changes. Operations to curb deforestation began to be executed primarily by the military instead of IBAMA, an agency with decades of expertise in combating environmental crimes and the power to fine illegal deforesters. Even though the military reportedly spent $110 million to monitor roads and rivers in the Amazon region — roughly 10 times the yearly budget for IBAMA — deforestation rates skyrocketed. An investigation by the Climate Policy Initiative and World Wildlife Fund showed environmental fines decreased by almost a third during the Bolsonaro administration when compared to 2015 levels. The government also created a convoluted appeals process which in practice ground the entire system to a halt, resulting in fines being paid at an even lower rate than before. From 2019 through 2021, 98 percent of IBAMA fines went unpaid.

“The message was that if you commit environmental crimes you don’t need to worry because the chances that you will be held accountable are minimal,” said Unterstell.

During the pandemic the pace of deregulation accelerated. In a leaked video of a cabinet meeting in 2020, Salles, the country’s then-environment minister, urged his colleagues to use the global crisis as an opportunity. “We need to make an effort while we are in this calm moment in terms of press coverage, because they are only talking about COVID, and push through and change all the rules and simplify the norms,” he was heard saying in the video.

Aerial view shows a deforested area of Amazon rainforest in Labrea, Amazonas state, Brazil, in 2021. Mauro Pimentel/AFP via Getty Images

Among other significant changes to environmental norms was a directive from IBAMA, then-led by pro-industry Bolsonaro supporters, that loosened proof of origin documentation requirements for exported wood (later struck down by the Supreme Federal Court), and a presidential decree that encouraged mining in Indigenous territory. The government was changing regulations as late as December 2022, weeks after Bolsonaro’s loss in the polls, when IBAMA issued a measure that allowed for logging on Indigenous lands as well.

Lula might have gotten started on Day 1 in reversing many of these environmentally harmful policies, but scientists and environmentalists warn that results will take time. It is one thing to commit changes to paper and another to implement them on the ground.

“There are major trends of illegality that need to be reversed and a whole rebuilding process that has to happen. We won’t be seeing 2012 levels of deforestation in six months or a year,” Araújo told Grist, referring to the year with the lowest deforestation rate since records began in 1988. “The government will face a resistance that was not as strong back in 2003.”

Today’s Amazon is a very different place than the one Lula encountered when he began his first term as president. Brazil as a whole is significantly more polarized and much of the Amazon region is led by governors and mayors who align themselves with Bolsonaro. When Lula won the election in October 2022, Bolsonaro supporters blocked roads and highways to protest what they understood, without evidence, to be a stolen election. Many of these protests occurred in the Amazon’s frontiers of deforestation, such as the town of Novo Progresso in the state of Pará. “Bolsonaro created a bellicosity in the population,” Araújo said.

This tension came to high pitch on January 8, when Bolsonaro supporters, bused into the capital Brasília from all over the country, stormed and vandalized Congress, the Supreme Federal Court, and the presidential offices. Speaking after the events of that day, Lula speculated: “Many who were in Brasília today could have been illegal miners or illegal loggers.”

The Amazon has also become a more violent and lawless place. While homicides in Brazil overall have been declining since 2018, they have been on the rise in the Amazon. If the Brazilian Amazon were a country, it would have the fourth highest homicide rate in the world. Some of this can be attributed to the increasing presence of organized crime groups in the region, who have become involved in illegal mining, logging, and fishing operations and use the region’s waterways as drug trafficking routes. This trend became international news last year with the murders of Guardian journalist Dom Phillips and the Indigenous activist Bruno Pereira.

In addition to these challenges, Lula will face fierce opposition in Congress from politicians friendly to agribusiness and mining interests. Having been elected by a thin margin, he has limited political capital to spend. Some are wary that the administration’s commitment to protecting the Amazon will waver over time. Although the rise in deforestation was much more pronounced during the Bolsonaro years, it began under the administration of Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s handpicked successor after he left office in 2010.

Still, it is widely expected that deforestation rates will be declining by the end of Lula’s now third term as President of Brazil. “We can be sure of that,” said Araújo. “All it takes is for environmental protection agencies to be allowed to do their job.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Brazil’s new president faces ‘scorched earth scenario’ left behind by Bolsonaro on Jan 17, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

This New York crypto lawsuit aims to settle a key climate law loophole

Grist - Tue, 01/17/2023 - 03:15

The environmental group Earthjustice has filed suit against New York state regulators, arguing that their decision to let a Canadian cryptocurrency mine take over a natural gas power plant violates the state’s climate protection law. 

The lawsuit, filed Friday with the Supreme Court of Albany County, says allowing Digitech to take over the plant near Buffalo would cause greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution to skyrocket. But the suit centers on a separate, yet related issue: settling a key debate over whether the Public Service Commission, a state body that regulates utilities, must consider emissions in its decision making.

Canadian blockchain technology company Digihost filed a petition with the New York Public Service Commission in early 2021 to purchase the Fortistar plant in the town of North Tonawanda. The facility had been operating as a peaker plant, providing electricity on the handful of days each year when demand spiked. It has released between 3,000 and 43,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually since 2016, according to Environmental Protection Agency data analyzed by Earthjustice. But Fortistar estimates that the plant will release more than 300,000 metric tons each year once it begins powering Digihost’s crypto mining facility. Emissions of harmful pollutants like particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, and nitrogen oxides will also increase.

“The Public Service Commission can no longer ignore the impacts of its decisions,” said Roger Downs, conservation director for the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter, which is a plaintiff in the suit. “Especially when they run counter to public benefit and endanger the air quality for communities already burdened with a disproportionate amount of pollution.”

Under New York’s Climate and Community Protection Act, which former governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law in 2019, the state must get 70 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030 and 100 percent from emissions-free sources by 2050. The law also dictates that state permitting, licensing, and other administrative approvals or appeals, “shall not disproportionately burden disadvantaged communities.” Just how those communities will be identified has yet to be finalized, but a mapping tool that uses criteria under consideration shows that several census tracts near the Fortistar plant could qualify. The area already grapples with a number of environmental burdens, including a high concentration of chemical facilities and industrially zoned land, flood risks, and pollution. 

Crypto operations requires large numbers of computers that suck up an enormous amount of energy. The resulting emissions have made crypto mining a contentious issue in New York. Governor Kathy Hochul cracked down on cryptocurrency mining last year, temporarily banning environmental permits for fossil fuel plants that power crypto operations. But the two-year moratorium does not apply to those that already filed their paperwork — including the Fortistar plant, which filed to renew its air permits last year.

The decision to approve those permits falls to the Department of Environmental Conservation, which has a clear mandate to consider the state’s climate law. The agency has already made several high profile decisions to deny permits for fossil fuel plants and even rejected an application to renew the air permit for a similar crypto mining facility, the Greenidge natural gas power plant, because its “continued operations would be inconsistent with the statewide greenhouse gas emission limits established in the Climate Act.”

The Public Service Commission, on the other hand, has contested its role in helping the state meet its emissions goals. Its seven members are appointed by the governor to regulate gas and electric utilities with the goal of ensuring “access to safe, reliable utility service at just and reasonable rates.” When utilities want to raise customer rates to invest in new infrastructure, they must get the commission’s approval. But despite its power over the buildout of natural gas pipelines, power plants, and other long-lived fossil fuel assets, the panel has repeatedly rejected the idea that it must consider emissions in its decision making. 

In approving Digihost’s acquisition of the Fortistar plant, the commission said the emissions question was beyond the purview of the proceeding, which was limited to examining whether the transfer would harm ratepayers. (Commissioners determined it would not.) However, environmental groups point to a section of the law which states, “In considering and issuing permits, licenses, and other administrative approvals and decisions …all state agencies, offices, authorities, and divisions shall consider whether such decisions are inconsistent with or will interfere with the attainment of the statewide greenhouse gas emissions limits.”

If the court agrees, the decision would have implications not only for Digihost but for utility regulation going forward: It could force the Public Service Commission to consider how allowing utilities to spend money on fossil fuel projects might hinder the state’s emission reduction goals.  

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline This New York crypto lawsuit aims to settle a key climate law loophole on Jan 17, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

New Mexico’s new pollution rules leave oil and gas operators to police themselves

High Country News - Tue, 01/17/2023 - 01:00
Lack of enforcement allows industry to keep emitting greenhouse gases, evidence shows.
Categories: H. Green News

Finland Nearly Doubled Its Wind Power Capacity Last Year

Yale Environment 360 - Fri, 01/13/2023 - 05:53

Finland saw its wind power capacity grow by 75 percent in 2022, according to the Finnish Wind Power Association, a wind energy trade group.

Read more on E360 →

Categories: H. Green News

The deadly link between diarrheal disease and climate change

Grist - Fri, 01/13/2023 - 03:30

Diarrhea, both common and preventable, is among the most dangerous threats to young children in the Global South, where clean water and medical care are often scarce. Diarrheal diseases, and the intense dehydration that accompanies them, kill more children under 5 years old than almost anything else — more than half a million children every year — primarily in middle- and low-income countries. Many parts of the globe have made progress against the viruses, bacteria, and parasites that cause diarrhea in recent decades — but climate change is threatening to slow those advancements.

A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences highlights the relationship between rising temperatures and diarrheal disease in children under 3 years old. The study’s authors found that weather anomalies called “precipitation shocks” are associated with an increased risk of diarrhea in many parts of the world. These unusually wet or dry periods have grown increasingly common as the planet warms and higher-than-normal temperatures contribute to an atmosphere that oscillates between exceedingly moist and extremely dry, depending on the region. 

Previous studies have shown a correlation between the changing climate and diarrheal disease, but those analyses took place on a small scale, usually looking at a single village or city. This study is among the first to take a bird’s-eye view of the issue by analyzing that link across dozens of countries. 

“We have known for some time now that climate change-related extreme heat and precipitation increases diarrheal diseases,” Amir Sapkota, chair of the department of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Maryland, told Grist. “What’s different and exciting about this study is that now it’s expanding that into 50-some countries.” Sapkota, who has studied the links between climate change and infectious disease in the past, was not involved in this new research.

The study’s authors collected data from interviews with mothers of young children from all over the world between 2000 and 2019. The interviews, conducted by an international development group, included information about where each child was geographically located and whether they had recently experienced symptoms associated with diarrhea. In total, the researchers obtained nationally representative information about some 600,000 children, about 18 percent of whom had experienced diarrhea in the weeks leading up to the interview. They overlaid that information with precipitation and drought data from the same time period. 

“This helped us to find out the associations between droughts, extreme rainfall, and children’s risk of diarrhea,” Anna Dimitrova, a researcher at the University of California, San Diego and the lead author of the study, told Grist.

Dimitrova and her team discovered that children face a heightened risk of diarrhea after extreme weather events in regions of the world where climate change is prompting dry seasons to become drier and wet seasons to become wetter. Zones known as the tropical savanna — Nigeria and Sudan in north-central Africa, for example — which are already prone to bouts of dryness, are becoming even more parched. Areas called the subtropical highlands, including Peru and Bolivia in western South America, experienced the opposite problem — monsoons are dumping even more rain on populations there. In both of these types of regions, the researchers found a strong correlation between these precipitation shocks and diarrhea symptoms in young children. 

The association between changing weather and diarrhea risk in low-income countries is yet another example of the disproportionate burden climate change is placing on the Global South — countries that have contributed relatively little to the bank of greenhouse gas emissions causing temperatures to rise. Climate change can influence the spread of pathogens anywhere. It becomes a critical public health risk when extended dry or wet periods occur in communities that lack essential sanitation infrastructure such as plumbing. 

That infrastructural inequity helps explain why precipitation shocks can lead to an increase in diarrhea in the regions the researchers identified. In low-income countries, many people lack access to clean municipal water and toilets. Open defecation pits are still the norm in parts of the world that lack the resources to build out sanitation systems. And people get their drinking and washing water from open rivers, streams, and ponds. During extreme flooding events, bacteria from excrement can leach into water sources and infect people. More flooding events and longer wet seasons mean more people are potentially exposed to dangerous pathogens that lead to diarrhea. 

An inverse but similarly hazardous pattern occurs during drought: Punishing dry seasons and flash droughts shrink local waterways and drinking water supplies, forcing people to dip into increasingly concentrated pools of water or to get their water from sources they know to be dangerous. A dearth of available water also forces communities to forgo crucial hygiene practices such as handwashing, which help kill bacteria and keep diseases at bay. 

“This is a very concerning trend,” Dimitrova said. “It’s not only the lives lost. Children are also losing a lot of school days, it can affect their performance in school, it can affect their growth and development.” 

The good news is solutions are low-tech and cost effective. Communities with access to piped water may assume that their water is safe because it comes out of a tap, but that’s not always the case, Dimitrova said. Local governments can monitor water quality and alert residents if bacteria pops up. Educating communities about how to make sure their water is safe, either by boiling, testing, or treating it, is another low-cost intervention. And it’s imperative that governments improve access to vaccinations, especially against the rotavirus, a leading cause of diarrhea in children. 

These solutions have already led to a decrease in diarrheal infections since the 1970s and ‘80s, Sapkota said, which means they work. But climate change is limiting that progress. “Although the rate is going down, climate change-driven hazards exacerbate” diarrheal infections, he said. “I think the challenge moving forward is, what are we going to do about it? Climate change is going nowhere, so how do we adapt to this new set of hazards as a society?”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The deadly link between diarrheal disease and climate change on Jan 13, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

The world’s oceans broke a heat record … again

Grist - Fri, 01/13/2023 - 03:15

The temperature of the planet’s oceans soared to a third consecutive record last year, something oceanographers and climatologists consider a critical indicator of a warming world and an accelerant of extreme weather.

A study published Wednesday in Advances in Atmospheric Sciences found the level of heat contained in the sea reached its highest level since record keeping began in 1958.  Data indicate that the top 2,000 meters gained about 10 zettajoules of heat between 2021 and 2022 — an amount equivalent to about 100 times the world’s electricity generation in 2021. 

The news follows a report, released Tuesday, that found the past eight years were the hottest in recorded history. As dire as that sounds, the oceanic data is more troubling still because marine temperatures are far less variable than atmospheric temperatures and provide a clearer picture of how the world is warming. 

Oceans, which cover more than 70 percent of the planet’s surface, absorb the majority of the solar energy that reaches Earth as sunlight. The rest is reflected back into space. As increasing emissions trap more and more of it here at home, with about 93 percent remaining in the sea. The epipelagic zone — which runs to a depth of about 200 meters — now stores as much heat as the atmosphere, limiting its ability to help regulate planetary temperatures. Warming seas lead to more frequent, and extreme, hurricanes, typhoons and rainstorms of the sort California is experiencing this month.

All that heat also causes oceans to rise by melting Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets and also by causing the molecules within sea water to move ever so slightly apart, increasing their volume. NASA attributes almost 40 percent of global sea level rise to this phenomenon, called thermal expansion, resulting in coastal erosion, flooding, and the loss of wetlands and marshes. 

Rising global temperatures have been somewhat tempered by three successive years of La Niña, a period of lower-than-normal marine surface temperatures. The impending return of El Niño, when the opposite occurs, could lead to further increases. 

“The long-term trends are very clear,” Gavin Schmidt, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies told the Wall Street Journal in a statement. “They are not due to natural variation. They are not due to the sun. They are not due to volcanoes. They are due to our emissions of greenhouse gasses and as long as we continue to emit large amounts of greenhouse gasses, these trends will continue.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The world’s oceans broke a heat record … again on Jan 13, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

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