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Updated: 3 days 16 hours ago

A rare Nevada flower gets ‘endangered’ status, raising questions for a proposed lithium mine

Fri, 12/16/2022 - 03:30

Conservation groups, concerned by the mining proposal, filed a petition to protect the flower back in 2019. On Tuesday, that effort paid off: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially listed the species as endangered, also designating 910 acres in the Nevada desert as critical habitat for the plant. 

“Lithium is an important part of our renewable energy transition, but it can’t come at the cost of extinction,” said Patrick Donnelly, the Great Basin director at the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed the petition, in a statement. “The Service did the right thing by protecting this precious wildflower.”

The designation won’t halt the mining project, known as Rhyolite Ridge, but rather hold it to higher regulatory standards, potentially giving conservationists more ammo to use in court if they think the project continues to threaten the species. The mine is expected to produce 22,000 metric tons of lithium per year over more than two decades. 

Lithium is an essential component in the batteries used in electric cars and on the electric grid, where they store renewable energy that can be dispatched when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. Ford, which has ambitious plans to crank out millions of electric vehicles in the coming years, has already agreed to purchase 7,000 metric tons per year from the Rhyolite Ridge mine. Domestic supplies of lithium are critical to the success of the Inflation Reduction Act, the $369 billion climate package Congress passed in August. Under the law, rebates for electric vehicles will eventually be restricted to models that use critical minerals that were extracted or processed in the United States or countries that the U.S. has free trade agreements with.

The endangered species listing is the latest chapter in the Biden administration’s attempt to balance the often conflicting goals of rapidly transitioning to clean energy, increasing U.S. conservation, protecting biodiversity, and repairing relations with tribal nations

The Center for Biological Diversity recently won similar protections for the Dixie Valley toad, a speckled amphibian that inhabits a Nevada wetland where a company called Ormat is building a geothermal power plant. In that case, after a lawsuit brought by the conservation group and the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe held the project up, the company decided to downsize its proposal. It’s now working with the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau for Land Reclamation to further reduce risks to the toad. 

Ioneer, the Australian company developing Rhyolite Ridge, welcomed the Tiehm’s buckwheat announcement this week. “We are committed to the protection and conservation of the species and have incorporated numerous measures into our current and future plans to ensure this occurs,” managing director Bernard Rowe wrote in a statement. “Our operations have and will continue to avoid all Tiehm’s buckwheat populations.”

The Center for Biological Diversity remains skeptical. The group described the company’s most recent operations plan as an open pit mine that would surround a “tiny island of land” on which 75 percent of the flower’s population lives. In its endangered species determination, the Fish and Wildlife Service found that the plan would “disturb and remove up to 38 percent of critical habitat for this species.”

The agency sees the designation of critical habitat as a pathway to “ensure development projects are planned and designed to avoid the destruction of habitat while supporting current and future land-use plans.” 

Donnelly plans to hold the agency to that. “Now that the buckwheat is protected,” he said in a statement, “we’ll use the full power of the Endangered Species Act to ensure Ioneer doesn’t harm one hair on a buckwheat’s head.”

But while Ioneer’s mining project poses risks to the species, so does climate change, which promises to worsen without a swift transition away from fossil fuels. In 2020, more than 60 percent of the already small population of Tiehm’s buckwheat was wiped out by small mammals over a two-week period. While further investigation is needed to understand the event, the Fish and Wildlife Service believes that drought may have contributed to it. “Rodents in drought conditions may have been seeking water from whatever source was available and, in this case, found the shallow taproots of mature Tiehm’s buckwheat plants,” the agency wrote. Drought is just one of the ways in which global warming threatens biodiversity — the United Nations’ climate science panel warned earlier this year that after just 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming, 14 percent of land species are likely to go extinct.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline A rare Nevada flower gets ‘endangered’ status, raising questions for a proposed lithium mine on Dec 16, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

New data show Houston-area communities are being flooded with chemicals

Thu, 12/15/2022 - 04:45

In June, Public Health Watch, the Investigative Reporting Workshop and Grist published a year-long investigation about pollution, power, and politics in the Texas petrochemical industry. This story shows what has happened in the six months since.

One by one, the residents filtered into the small community center and found seats in the rows of plastic chairs. Some were teenagers wearing yellow-and-black Galena Park High School letter jackets. Others were parents and grandparents juggling children. Many wore white headphones to hear the Spanish translator standing nearby. Everyone looked worried.

They had gathered on that chilly November night to learn what two new, high-tech monitors had found in the air in Galena Park and Jacinto City, neighboring towns in eastern Harris County, the epicenter of North America’s petrochemical industry. They were prepared for grim news.

“Everyone here knows pollution is a big problem,” said Maricela Serna, a former Galena Park commissioner who has one of the monitors on the roof of her tax preparation office. “But we want to know just how bad things really are. We deserve to know. And those in power, especially at the state level, need to know.”

Serna, 66, has lived in Galena Park since 1988 and the stench of chemicals is part of her everyday life. The odor inside her home was so bad one day that a visitor from outside the community thought there was a gas leak and called the fire department. Still, Serna held out hope that the news that night might be positive — that maybe, just maybe, the pollution wasn’t as bad as the odors let on.

But the data from the monitors confirmed her worst fears.

Maricela Serna has lived in Galena Park since 1988. Her two oldest children left the city to protect their health and are urging their mother, a cancer survivor, to do the same. Mark Felix

Nitrogen oxides, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has linked to asthma in children and lower birth weight in newborns, were consistently above the agency’s one-hour limit. Ozone, which can aggravate lung diseases including asthma and emphysema, was well above the EPA’s eight-hour limit. Particulate matter, which increases the risk for strokes and heart disease by settling deep into lungs and seeping into bloodstreams, hovered above the EPA’s annual limit. 

The readings from Serna’s office, located a block from a thoroughfare lined with petrochemical plants, were especially high. Monthly levels of nitrogen oxides, for example, averaged 170 parts per billion from June through August — nearly double what the EPA says is safe for just one hour.

The data was presented by Juan Flores, a lifelong Galena Park resident and clean-air advocate. He oversees community air monitoring programs for Air Alliance Houston, the nonprofit he works for, and Environmental Community Advocates of Galena Park, a smaller group he helped create and where he is vice president. Over the past few years, the two groups have built a network of air monitors that gives  residents basic information about the dangers they are living with.

Regulators and scientists are often skeptical of community-gathered data, because it’s usually less sophisticated than the data state and federal agencies collect. But the community data is still important, because it can be used to rally residents and prod elected officials to acknowledge a neighborhood’s plight. It can also complement the ongoing work of researchers by providing hyper-local information about wind patterns and chemical readings of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, a diverse group of chemicals that includes some carcinogens. 

“This lower-level monitoring… warrants further investigation, but it supports what we’re seeing at the city level,” said Loren Hopkins, the chief environmental science officer for the Houston Health Department. “There’s a huge educational component, too. Instead of just using traditional advocacy, they’re actually using science to support their claims.”

Forty percent of Galena Park’s 11,000 residents live within a mile of an industrial facility. Thirty percent live below the poverty line. Mark Felix

Flores had looked forward to unveiling the new monitoring results that night. He was proud of the work the advocacy groups had done. But when he saw the residents’ worried faces, the reality of what he was about to tell them set in. 

They were accustomed to the burning smell of synthetics that filled their schools and churches, the grinding sounds of rail cars and the rumbling of industrial trucks outside their homes and businesses. They were unfazed by the sight of refinery flares burning in the sky above their parks and playgrounds. 

It’s one thing to assume the worst. It’s another to be confronted by data that proves it. 

“I could tell in their faces… they were shocked,” Flores said. “Reading it out loud just hit me like, ‘Damn, this is really bad.’ I was as horrified as they were.” 

Texas State Representative Penny Morales Shaw is also worried about the new monitoring results. 

In June, Morales Shaw, a Democrat whose district is in Northwest Houston, vowed to strengthen the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ, after she read a Public Health Watch investigation of Harris County’s pollution problems. The reporting found there had been nearly 500 illegal chemical releases in the region since 2020, including one that killed two workers and injured dozens more at a LyondellBasell plant. In the six months since the story was released, there have been more than 80 additional illegal releases, according to an analysis of TCEQ records by Public Health Watch.

Morales Shaw said she was “deeply disturbed” by the TCEQ’s ineffectiveness and the mistrust the agency has created in heavily industrialized places like Galena Park. She said her top priorities in the upcoming legislative session, which begins next month, would include raising fines for unlawful emissions and giving local governments more power to push back against polluters.

Juan Flores’ new findings underscore the need for these changes, she said.

The high-tech Apis monitor on Maricela Serna’s tax preparation office recorded high levels of nitrogen oxides, which are linked to asthma and lower birth weight. From June through August, the monitor averaged 170 parts per billion of nitrogen oxides. That’s almost twice as high as the Environmental Protection Agency’s one-hour limit. Mark Felix

“Successful industry is important because that’s a key economic driver here, but we have to start prioritizing quality of life,” Morales Shaw said. “We’re hired and elected to work for the people. And the people in Galena Park and Jacinto City are suffering.”

State Senator Carol Alvarado, a Democrat who represents Galena Park, also plans to push for environmental reforms in 2023. She said she was “disappointed and disturbed” by the new monitoring results. “But growing up in that area, I can’t say I’m surprised,” she added.

Alvarado wants to increase the TCEQ’s funding so the agency can buy more air monitors and hire more staff. Between 2016 and 2021, the Texas legislature slashed the TCEQ’s funding by 20 percent, even as it increased the state budget by 16 percent. 

Other lawmakers have tried, and failed, to persuade the Republican-dominated legislature to strengthen the TCEQ. The oil, gas and petrochemical industries are such powerful forces in the Texas economy that politicians rarely oppose them. 

In 2021, the oil and gas industry employed more than 400,000 Texans and contributed nearly $16 billion to the state economy in taxes and royalties, according to the Texas Oil and Gas Association. The chemical industry employs tens of thousands more. The industries are key funders for state leaders, including Governor Greg Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton, all of whom won reelection in November after receiving millions of dollars in campaign contributions from them. 

According to a report by Environment Texas and the Environmental Integrity Project, polluters in Texas were fined for less than 3 percent of nearly 25,000 illegal chemical releases between 2011 and 2016. A TCEQ spokesman told Public Health Watch in June that “the current enforcement rate for reported emission events is over 10 percent.” 

A new generation of Harris County leaders is doing what it can to fill the regulatory void left by the TCEQ.

The Democrat-controlled Harris County Commissioners Court — which oversees a multibillion-dollar budget and sets policies for everything from public health to law enforcement — gave the county’s  Pollution Control department $5.9 million in 2019 so it could hire more employees and buy air monitors and a mobile lab. In 2022, the court boosted  the department’s annual budget by $1.2 million. 

This trend is likely to continue, because the November elections gave the Democrats, led by Judge Lina Hidalgo, a 4-1 majority on the court.

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said local action is critical when the state fails to protect public health. Since becoming the county’s chief civil lawyer two years ago, he has made suing polluters a priority, even though he says he’s working “with both hands tied behind [his] back.” In addition to facing powerful companies with well-heeled legal teams, he also has to navigate industry-friendly state laws that restrict not only when counties can sue oil and gas companies but also how much money they can sue for. 

A water tower is decorated with the mascot for Galena Park High School, which sits less than a mile from a terminal that can hold more than 10 million barrels of chemicals. In November several students attended a community meeting to learn what chemicals are hovering in the air in their neighborhoods. Mark Felix

“We’ve had to get creative, find new angles when targeting facilities after emission events,” Menefee said. “Upholding the law shouldn’t be this hard, but the state of Texas has shown time and time again that its first goal is protecting industry, rather than protecting these communities.”

Despite the county’s growing commitment to environmental justice, communities of color like Galena Park, where nearly 30 percent of residents live below the poverty line and 40 percent live within a mile of an industrial facility, still feel left behind. That’s why the local air monitoring network is so important, Flores said.

At first, the network relied on inexpensive PurpleAir monitors that only capture readings for easily detectable pollutants like smoke and particulate matter. In March, it added the two new Apis air monitors that provided the data Flores shared last month. They gather real-time readings for ozone, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter. They also detect overall levels for VOCs. 

Next year the network will be able install even more advanced equipment, using a grant from the EPA. It includes $75,000 to buy canisters that can measure emissions from individual facilities, as well as monitors that can identify individual VOCs, including benzene. Benzene is of particular concern because it can cause leukemia and is frequently released by chemical plants and oil refineries. 

The grant also gives the network access to mobile monitoring services provided by a private, California-based company. Its equipment can pinpoint the presence of high-risk chemicals in as little as five seconds.

The first community air monitors installed in Galena Park were inexpensive PurpleAir monitors that capture only easily detectable pollutants, including smoke and particulate matter. More sophisticated monitors have since been installed to collect data on ozone, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds. Mark Felix

This kind of work should be celebrated, said Hopkins, the Houston Health Department’s top environmental scientist. But communities need more help from state regulators — and they need it now. 

“We can keep studying these communities, but the people there are tired of being studied. We need to take action,” Hopkins said. “Tightening permits, enforcing violations… The whole thing would be so much better if we controlled emissions to begin with, instead of trying to clean things up afterwards.”

The need for early intervention is especially apparent in Galena Park and Jacinto City, where residents have seen generations of neighbors ravaged by cancer.

Maricela Serna, the tax preparer with a monitor on top of her office, had a malignant tumor removed from her ovaries in 2012. Her biannual cancer screenings have been clean since then, but she worries the chemicals she breathes every day will cause the disease to return and spread. Her two oldest children moved away from Galena Park to escape the pollution, and they’re urging her to do the same. 

But it’s not that simple.

“I have a business to run and am still three or four years away from retiring,” Serna said. “I wish I could just get up and go now. But it’s very expensive to move and we don’t have the money.”

Real estate agent José Ramón said many of his clients are older Galena Park residents who decided to sell their homes after discovering they had cancer. Ramón also hopes to move before he gets cancer himself. Mark Felix

José Ramón, a real estate agent who has a PurpleAir monitor behind his Jacinto City home, said two of his children also left the area. He urged them to get out while they were still young.

“I’ve noticed a pattern: A lot of people, mostly in their late 50s, have called me up to sell their house because they’ve been diagnosed with different kinds of cancer,” Ramón said. “They just want to salvage their health. I want to do the same before it’s too late.”

The November meeting in Galena Park ended with one last reality check.

After all the questions had been asked and answered, Juan Flores paused for a moment, his face looking worn under the fluorescent lights’ yellowish glow. 

In September, he told the small crowd, he had been diagnosed with MGUS, a blood disorder that affects plasma cells in bone marrow and diminishes kidney function. MGUS can evolve into multiple myeloma — a blood cancer that, according to the American Cancer Society, has been linked to exposure to high levels of benzene. 

“It’s happening to me. I live here with y’all,” Flores said.  “And if it’s happening to me, it can happen to you and any other family member.”

As he spoke, Flores looked at his 6-year-old daughter, Dominique, who sat in the front row wearing a red superhero’s cape. She was born with a malignant tumor in her stomach that required chemotherapy and multiple surgeries. Years before, Flores’ father died of a heart attack on the job after spending decades working in refineries. He was just 51.

Flores said his doctor told him there’s a 10 percent chance that his condition will evolve into cancer. But he fears that number will go up if he stays in Galena Park much longer. He recently bought a small plot of land in Trinity, a rural town 100 miles to the north. Now he’s trying to scrape together enough money to buy a mobile home and move his family away from the pollution. 

Savanna Strott with Public Health Watch contributed to this story. 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline New data show Houston-area communities are being flooded with chemicals on Dec 15, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Amazon’s plastic packaging waste grew 18% in 2021, report says

Thu, 12/15/2022 - 03:30

Plastic packaging waste from the online retail giant Amazon ballooned to 709 million pounds globally in 2021 — equivalent to the weight of some 70,000 killer whales — according to a new report published Thursday by the nonprofit Oceana. That’s an 18 percent increase over Oceana’s estimate of Amazon’s plastic packaging for 2020, indicating a growing problem that environmental advocates — and even Amazon’s own shareholders — say the company is doing too little to address.

Amazon’s plastic packaging “is a problem for the world’s waterways and oceans, and it’s an issue they need to be prioritizing,” said Dana Miller, Oceana’s director of strategic initiatives and an author of the report. If all the company’s plastic from 2021 were converted into plastic air pillows — the inflated pouches inserted in some Amazon packages to reduce shifting during transit — and laid side by side, Miller said it would circle the globe more than 800 times.

As the largest retailer on the planet, Amazon goes through a lot of plastic. It ships 7.7 billion packages around the world each year, often using plastic air pillows, bags, and protective sleeves to cushion products during transit. Environmental advocates say these are some of the worst kinds of plastics: They can’t be recycled, and their light weight makes them prone to drifting into the oceans, where they kill more large marine mammals than any other kind of ocean debris. As the plastics break down, they not only leach harmful chemicals but can also bind with new ones in the environment, posing toxicity risks to the mussels, oysters, whales, and other animals that unintentionally ingest them.

This plastic “is not a friendly visitor to the oceans,” Miller said. Her organization estimated that 26 million pounds of Amazon’s plastic waste from 2021 will eventually end up in the world’s oceans, rivers, and other aquatic ecosystems. 

Plastics also cause harm during the production phase, emitting greenhouse gases and posing environmental justice concerns. Petrochemical facilities that make plastics tend to be sited near disproportionately low-income communities and communities of color,  exposing them to hazardous chemicals that are linked to cancer, respiratory disease, and neurological problems

Historically, the tricky part about holding Amazon accountable for plastic pollution has been its secrecy around the issue. The company has repeatedly declined to disclose its plastic packaging use, even after investors owning nearly 50 percent of Amazon’s shares voted in favor of a shareholder resolution demanding it. Conrad MacKerron, senior vice president of the shareholder advocacy group that filed the resolution, As You Sow, said Amazon has ignored his organization since the vote last May. “It’s really appalling behavior from a company like this,” he told Grist.

It wasn’t until this week, two days before Oceana’s report came out, that Amazon offered its own estimate for its plastic packaging footprint. In a blog post, the company said it used about 214 million pounds of single-use plastic packaging to ship orders to customers in 2021 — less than one-third the amount Oceana calculated.

Matt Littlejohn, Oceana’s senior vice president for strategic initiatives, said this is because Amazon’s estimate only accounts for plastic packaging used for orders sent through Amazon-owned and operated fulfillment centers — which account for an undisclosed fraction of Amazon’s total sales. (Amazon told Grist its figures represent “the majority of plastics used” to ship orders to its customers, and that it provides third-party sellers “incentives” to reduce packaging.) Oceana’s estimate, by contrast, considers all sales facilitated by Amazon, including those fulfilled through third-party sellers. 

Amazon’s reported figure “is not directly comparable to Oceana’s estimate,” Littlejohn said in a statement. To make its calculation, Oceana used publicly available data on the amount of plastic packaging waste from e-commerce in countries representing Amazon’s top nine markets and Amazon’s market share in those countries. Assuming that Amazon’s market share is correlated with its use of plastic packaging, Oceana multiplied the two numbers together, concluding that the retailer used about 709 million pounds of plastic packaging in 2021.

Virtually no U.S. curbside recycling programs accept the kind of plastic that goes into Amazon’s plastic packaging, meaning most of it must be dumped into landfills or incinerated. Brent Stirton / Getty Images

“Until Amazon is fully transparent on its company-wide use of plastic packaging,” Littlejohn continued in his statement, Oceana’s calculation “is the best available estimate of the company’s total plastic footprint.”

MacKerron, with As You Sow, echoed Oceana’s concerns and noted that Amazon’s blog post still does not address requests for the company to set quantitative plastic-reduction targets. Instead, it speaks in broad terms and highlights two initiatives where Amazon is replacing single-use plastics with paper alternatives, one of which was first announced three years ago.

Other solutions proffered by Amazon — like educating consumers about waste management and funding more plastic collection infrastructure — lean on plastics recycling, which experts say will never scale up to become a viable solution to the plastic pollution crisis. Virtually no U.S. curbside recycling programs accept the kind of plastic that goes into Amazon’s plastic packaging, meaning most of it must be dumped into landfills or incinerated. Amazon tries to get around this by encouraging customers to deposit packaging at “store drop-off” collection points for plastic film, which is ostensibly then picked up and recycled, but experts believe these programs are a “charade.” Not even 6 percent of Amazon users say they use them, and Oceana’s own investigation into 186 of the U.S. and U.K. drop-off locations that Amazon promotes on its website revealed that at least 41 percent don’t actually accept Amazon’s plastic packaging.

Environmental advocates say Amazon is capable of much more to reduce plastic waste, as evidenced by steps the company has already taken in other countries. In response to a plastic elimination policy in India, Amazon says it replaced all of its single-use plastics there. For orders originating from the EU, where the European Commission has proposed plastic reduction requirements for e-commerce, Amazon has said it no longer uses single-use plastic bags, pouches, or air cushions.

In the U.S., environmental advocates hope legislation enacted in California earlier this year could catalyze action from Amazon. The statewide Plastic Pollution Producer Responsibility Act will require companies operating in California to slash the amount of plastic they produce and sell by at least 25 percent between 2023 and 2032. Because California represents about 15 percent of the U.S. economy, Amazon is expected to follow the law nationwide rather than develop separate protocols for the Golden State.

Still, Oceana wants Amazon to preempt these policies and reduce plastics voluntarily. “It’s the right thing to do,” Miller said. Her organization is calling on Amazon to make a company-wide commitment to reduce its worldwide plastic packaging one-third below 2022 levels by 2030 — in addition to releasing public reports on its total plastic use. 

According to MacKerron, these asks are “quite mild,” given the hundreds of other companies — including corporations that generate huge amounts of plastic waste, like Unilever and Mondelez — that have long disclosed their total plastic packaging use and have set targets to reduce it. (They may be failing to meet those targets, but their actions suggest Amazon could publish a quantitative target if it wanted to.) A new shareholder resolution filed by As You Sow on Tuesday says Amazon is “falling behind its peers.”

Oceana’s final demand is for Amazon to account for and reduce the climate impact and plastics footprint of all the products it sells on its website. An investigation published earlier this year revealed that Amazon’s pledge to achieve net-zero climate pollution by 2040 counts life cycle emissions only for products with an Amazon brand label, which account for just 1 percent of the company’s online sales. Miller said it’s imperative that Amazon correct this error and not replicate it in the plastic-reduction policy that Oceana is asking for.

“Amazon should take responsibility for the full climate impact of all products sold through its website and all packaging used to ship these sales,” Oceana says in its report. 

This post has been updated to include additional comments from Amazon about its estimated plastic packaging use.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Amazon’s plastic packaging waste grew 18% in 2021, report says on Dec 15, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Report: A hotter, wetter Arctic spells trouble for everyone

Wed, 12/14/2022 - 15:43

When you think of the Arctic, wildfires, rain, and typhoons probably don’t spring to mind. But all of these events came for the Far North this year, and scientists say more freak weather events are in store.

The last seven years in the Arctic were the hottest on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s annual “report card” released this week, the work of nearly 150 scientists. The Arctic, warming four times faster than the planet overall, is rapidly destabilizing — with troubling consequences for the people who live there as well as global weather patterns.

Warmer weather is already messing with the Arctic’s seasons. Snow cover is melting earlier on in the spring, allowing wildfires to get an early start and to tear through new areas. By June, fires had already burned 1 million acres, a record for that time of year.

The region is losing snow cover at a rate of nearly 20 percent every decade since the late 1960s and receiving more rain. In a new finding, the NOAA report’s authors documented an increase in precipitation over the entire Arctic region, with more frequent downpours. This year was the third-wettest for the Arctic in the past 72 years. As the ocean warms up and loses sea ice, more moisture is heading to the atmosphere, allowing for more rainfall. In September, for example, a typhoon fueled by unusually warm waters in the North Pacific struck Alaska, bringing a destructive storm surge that knocked coastal homes off their foundations.

That same month, a heat wave caused an outburst of melting across more than a third of Greenland’s ice sheet. Soon afterward, the remnants of Hurricane Fiona — after battering Puerto Rico and Canada’s east coast — once again sent warm air over Greenland’s southern ice sheet, prompting the worst melting event the area had ever experienced in late September.

Turning up the heat in the Arctic can cause far-reaching consequences. Once dubbed the “refrigerator” of the northern hemisphere, the region plays a key role in stabilizing weather further south — an ability that it’s losing. As the Arctic warms, it raises sea levels, alters the atmosphere’s circulation patterns, and sends strange weather across the globe. For instance, warm temperatures in the Far North can cause the polar jet stream to dip south, bringing bitter cold across parts of the northern hemisphere. The more unpredictable weather brought on by ice loss is already hurting crop production, instability that could raise food prices — another example of “heatflation.”

For the 400,000 Indigenous people who live in the Arctic, the effects of warming are especially acute. NOAA’s report card included the most comprehensive look in its 17-year run at how Indigenous communities in the Arctic are feeling these changes. “Our homes, livelihoods, and physical safety are threatened by the rapid-melting ice, thawing permafrost, increasing heat, wildfires, and other changes,” Jackie Qatalina Schaeffer, an Iñupiaq from Kotzebue, Alaska, who contributed to the report and directs climate initiatives for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, told the New York Times.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Report: A hotter, wetter Arctic spells trouble for everyone on Dec 14, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Strange diseases are spreading in Blackfeet Country. Can dogs track down the culprits?

Wed, 12/14/2022 - 03:45

The sun is setting in Glacier County, Montana. Souta Calling Last guns her diesel-powered white GMC pickup truck east on Highway 2. The car following her can barely keep up as she hurtles across the dimming prairie, one hand resting lightly on the steering wheel, her eyes scanning the side of the highway. Calling Last, a researcher and an enrolled member of the Blood Tribe — one of the four nations that make up the Blackfoot Confederacy — grew up on the Blackfeet reservation. She knows this landscape by heart. 

“There it is,” she says and yanks the steering wheel to the right, sending a plume of dust into the air as she brakes hard on the gravel shoulder. The Two Medicine River, sacred to the Amskapi Pikuni, the Blackfeet, rushes nearby. A couple of minutes later, a gray Toyota slowly pulls in behind the GMC and rolls to a stop. The words “Working Dogs for Conservation” are printed on its side in block letters. A volley of excited yips and whines rings out from the truck bed.

Calling Last has brought Working Dogs for Conservation, or WD4C, a nonprofit that trains dogs to hunt down invasive species and poachers, to the Blackfeet reservation to help her solve a mystery. In recent decades, unusual cancers and thyroid issues have bloomed in clusters across the Nation. Some Blackfeet stopped harvesting wild plants and animals — like mint, huckleberries, and elk — suspecting that traditional sources of sustenance for countless generations had become contaminated and diseased. But so far, there’s been limited empirical research linking the tribe’s public health woes to its environment. Calling Last aims to change that by conducting a comprehensive scientific survey of environmental contaminants in Blackfeet territory. If it works, her experiment will give the community peace of mind and the freedom to harvest wild edibles safely.

Her success relies on two restless dogs waiting in crates in the back of the gray truck. 

Sully is a black-haired border collie and retriever mutt. Grist / Zoya Teirstein Frost is a rust-and-cream-colored Springer spaniel-pit mix. Grist / Zoya Teirstein

Frost is a rust-and-cream-colored Springer spaniel-pit mix, Sully is a black-haired border collie and retriever mutt. Sully, who was trained to track down human remains before he came to WD4C, was part of an unplanned litter. Frost was surrendered by his former owners for being too excitable, too energetic, and too obsessed with balls — traits that made him a perfect candidate for professional service.  

Freed from the back of the truck, Frost and Sully zigzag from bank to bank, their tails wagging furiously. They’ve been trained to pinpoint mink and otter droppings, or scat, which can contain toxins because of processes called bioaccumulation and biomagnification, when substances move through the food chain and get concentrated in organisms. Insects like mayflies and dragonflies pick up toxins from their environment and accumulate them in their exoskeletons, then they’re consumed in vast numbers by trout and other fish, which in turn get eaten by mink and otters. The mammals leave their scat, infused with whatever toxins were originally in the insects, on the sides of the Two Medicine and other water bodies on the reservation. 

All of a sudden, Frost stops running and starts sniffing around a beaver dam. Michele Vasquez, a canine field specialist who is leading the Blackfeet project for WD4C, isn’t sure whether the dog is excited about scat or if he’s trying to rouse an animal hiding in the dam, but she hangs back a few feet to let him work. Seconds later, Frost sits and makes eye contact with Vasquez. “Yeah? You think you’ve got something?” she asks him, and leans forward for a closer look.

Sure enough, a small, jet black dropping is perched precariously on a twig a few inches inside the beaver dam: mink scat. “What a guy!” Vasquez exclaims. She pulls Frost’s reward, a yellow ball on a rope, out of her fanny pack and chucks it into the river. Frost dives after it, ecstatic. Vasquez’s colleague, forensic field specialist Ngaio Richards, walks over and dons a plastic glove before reaching her hand into the dam to collect the sample and put it in a paper bag. Vasquez marks the place where Frost found the scat on her GPS. They’ll send the scat, and all the other samples they collect on this trip, to a lab for testing. When the results come back, Calling Last will share the data with her community. Clean scat means it’s safe to harvest wild edibles from this part of the river; toxic scat means it’s better to harvest somewhere else. 

Calling Last has heard stories about contaminants buried on the reservation her whole life: whispers about a web of toxic hotspots, the legacy of decades of illegal dumping of trash, electronics, and other hazards. Rumors that a company paid the tribe a paltry sum to bury a cache of nuclear waste somewhere on the Nation’s rolling plains in the 1960s. Snatches of information about the chemicals companies used for fracking in the Bakken shale formation, which runs beneath part of the reservation and contains billions of barrels of oil and natural gas. The threat of oil extraction still looms today. The tribe is currently fighting to stop an oil company, Solenex, that wants to drill near the Badger and Two Medicine Rivers, which hold some of the tribe’s most sacred and culturally significant sites.

These scattered reports have contributed to a sense of unease among the Nation. “I feel like there’s a lot of fear on the reservation,” Celina Gray, a Little Shell and Blackfeet mother of four and a graduate student at the University of Montana studying wildlife biology, said. She wants to take her kids out hunting and foraging with her, but she doesn’t want to expose them to the environmental health hazards she suspects are lurking in the soil. 

Celina Gray is a Little Shell and Blackfeet mother of four and a graduate student at the University of Montana studying wildlife biology. Grist / Zoya Teirstein

Rates of cancer are higher on the Blackfeet Nation than elsewhere in Montana. Six in 1,000 Blackfeet were diagnosed with some type of cancer, on average, every year between 2005 and 2014, compared to 5 in 1,000 Montanans per year over the same period. An assessment of health risks among Blackfeet shows cancer was the leading cause of death on the reservation between 2014 and 2015 — 16 percent of overall deaths during that time period. But the tribe lacks the data it needs to get a fuller sense of how the disease is impacting Blackfeet and what could be causing these higher rates. 

Calling Last says it’s not just the higher rate of cancer that concerns her, but the way the disease and its warning signs appear, in clusters, that makes her think people may be exposed to unknown health risks from the environment. 

Kim Paul, the founder of a public health nonprofit called the Piikani Health Lodge Institute, tried to track down the source of the cancer when she was a graduate student at the University of Montana in the 2010s. Because she’s a member of the community, she knew about a 10-mile-long portion of the reservation, 40 miles north of the Blackfeet headquarters in the town of Browning, where every family but one had developed multiple forms of cancer. She remembered her grandmother’s warnings, when Paul was just a little girl, not to collect bear grass or flowers from that part of the reservation. “There was a lot of death in that stretch of road,” Paul said. At the University of Montana, she started collecting samples from the area to conduct a study, but quickly ran out of money and was forced to abandon the project. 

Now, Calling Last is picking up the mantle. She was awarded a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to devise a project that will establish a database of environmental stressors at sites across the reservation that are both important harvesting spots and hold cultural significance to the Nation. Calling Last expects to find trace amounts of uranium and other nuclear energy byproducts, heavy metals that leached from illegal and legal dumpsites, pharmaceutical residue flushed or tossed by members of the tribe, and flame retardants and other pollutants carried into waterways by urban runoff. Then, she’ll add that data to a virtual map she’s making for her community.

A lone pumpjack sits on the plains south of the Blackfeet reservation in northwestern Montana. AP Photo / Matt Volz

When it’s complete, her map will have more than 30 layers — sites of cultural importance, traditional names for rivers and valleys, toxic dumps, areas where it is dangerous to harvest plants and animals, and more. Each layer will serve a different role in achieving an overarching goal: to help the Blackfeet protect their health, preserve their traditional ways of life, and strengthen their hold on cultural identity and knowledge.

But first, Calling Last needs to find mink and otter scat. Or rather, the dogs do.

Frost and Sully get food and love from their trainers. They affectionately call Frost “melon butt,” because of the dense bunches of muscles at the top of his stocky legs. And in return, WD4C gets access to the dogs’ secret weapons: their noses.

Humans can see well and we have big brains, but we don’t have very many scent receptors in our nostrils — at least, not compared to dogs. All of the scent receptors from a human’s nose, laid side by side, would fit on the surface of a postage stamp. All the scent receptors from a dog’s snout would fill a handkerchief. “Let’s say you walk into a house and you smell spaghetti dinner being cooked,” Hugh Murray, a K-9 handler for the Quapaw Nation of Oklahoma. “You smell the product. They smell the individual ingredients, the flour, the sugar, the tomato. They break things down individually.”  

Ngaio Richards collects a scat sample. Grist / Zoya Teirstein Brown paper bags hold mink and otter scat samples located by the working dogs. Grist / Zoya Teirstein

A dog can also pinpoint a single ingredient in a forest of other smells, a “single drop of perfume in an Olympic size pool,” Amanda Ott, a dog trainer for Working Dogs for Conservation, said, which is what makes them so good at working in the field.

Dogs have been trained to sniff out cancer, bed bugs, COVID-19, even stress. But canine fieldwork has drawbacks, and each working dog has its own idiosyncrasies. Ott, who owns and trains the black lab mix Sully, recently lost him for an afternoon when the pup took off after a moose. 

And switching dogs from one project to another can confuse them as well. Frost, who had just come back to Montana after three weeks in Wyoming hunting down invasive plant species, would occasionally get sidetracked by a plant that looked like a target from his previous adventure while looking for scat along the Two Medicine River. With gentle coaxing from Vasquez, though, he was able to refocus.

Michele Vasquez points Frost toward an area she wants him to search. Grist / Zoya Teirstein

Over the course of nine days of surveying, the two dogs found more than 70 scat samples. On their last day of work on the reservation, a member of the community told Calling Last that someone had illegally dumped barrels of used motor oil into the water upriver from one of her testing sites. Vasquez said the silver lining is that now the researchers will have data from before and after the incident. “So lies the crux of this work,” she said. 

Eight years ago, Calling Last would never have imagined designing research around the vagaries of dogs. She was working as a water training facilitator, teaching Indigenous and non-Indigenous water operators how to manage their systems. She infused her trainings with presentations on the cultural importance of water and the original names for rivers and streams. “I tried to implant in them that they are our communities’ modern day water warriors, because they’re cleaning the water,” she said. 

But the work wasn’t fulfilling. She quit her job and set about starting her own organization. After a year, she had cashed in her 401(k) and savings accounts, maxed out her credit cards, and succeeded in forming the group she still runs as a one-woman show today: Indigenous Vision. She holds cultural sensitivity trainings for Native and non-Native groups, runs educational programs for Blackfeet youth, and has spent the past several years building out the multi-layered map. 

Calling Last laid out the stakes for me as she drove between surveying spots, pausing once in a while to take swigs of an energy drink and sing along to the mid-2000s hits thumping from a playlist on her phone. The license plates on her truck read “MTNBRBI” — “mountain Barbie” — a tribute to the place where she was raised, and where much of her family and many of her friends live. She grew up picking mint, sage, and sweetgrass on the reservation’s prairies. Her relatives hunt for buffalo, deer, and elk in its mountains and plains.

Souta Calling Last, a researcher and an enrolled member of the Blood Tribe, grew up on the Blackfeet reservation. Grist / Zoya Teirstein

Hunting and foraging are not only crucial aspects of Blackfeet spiritual and cultural identity, she said, they’re a means of survival for a community that lacks critical resources. Some 36 percent of people on the reservation live below the poverty line, compared to 12.5 percent statewide. More than two-thirds of all Blackfeet are food insecure, meaning they don’t have reliable access to nutritious food. Wild animals and plants are cheaper, healthier, and fresher than the meat and produce available at the grocery store, Celina Gray, the graduate student, said. “The meat we ate all winter long was elk burger,” she said, “I don’t buy hamburger at Costco.” 

But Blackfeet will only continue turning to those traditional methods of harvesting as long as they can trust them. Calling Last has watched as, over the years, her friends, family, and wider community developed unusual health problems — and she hasn’t been spared, either.  

“Me, a bunch of other people, my mom, all the women in my family, have thyroid issues,” she said. To her, the source of the sickness is clear: “It’s gotta be something from our environment.”

A survey site on the reservation. Grist / Zoya Teirstein

That’s why Calling Last, who has a degree in water management from the University of Montana, has dedicated her life to building this map. “As a scientist, I can read Excel sheets and see data trends just by looking at the numbers,” she said. “But my community can’t. My community doesn’t even know what good or bad exposure limits are to all of these contaminants.” 

And there’s a new threat on the horizon, one that further imperils the tribe’s reliance on the environment. The dogs have been brought out to the reservation this year to track down environmental contamination, but next summer, they’ll hunt for traces of an even worse-understood health hazard: chronic wasting disease.

In the winter of 2020, a Blackfeet hunter named Charley Wolf Tail shot and killed a white-tailed deer on his property and, because he had heard warnings about a strange illness percolating in deer in Montana, sent the animal’s lymph nodes to the Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks department for testing. The nodes turned up positive for chronic wasting disease, or CWD, an illness caused not by a virus or a bacteria, but by a baffling phenomenon in the natural world: a misfolded protein, or a “prion.”

One prion can infect the proteins in healthy cells by forcing them to fold, too, creating a chain reaction that produces a series of tiny holes in the brains of the hoofed ruminants that are unlucky enough to come across it. The prions create a mushy, spongy texture in the organ. Outwardly, the animals waste away for no discernible reason. Chronic wasting disease is often referred to as “zombie deer disease” because the creatures afflicted with it end up dazed and haggard, walking in aimless circles until they die. CWD could lead to mass die-offs in deer and elk populations on the reservation — whose meat Blackfeet depend on for survival. And experts still don’t know if the illness can spread to humans. 

The federal government has detected CWD in 30 states. The deer shot by Wolf Tail is the first documented case of CWD on the reservation. If it spreads, it could further upend the Blackfeet way of life. “Because we live so close to the land and because we’re subsistence hunters,” Calling Last said, “if there is a human impact from CWD, it’s going to be to the tribal people.” 

U.S. Geological Survey

Once CWD establishes itself in a given area, it’s nearly impossible to eradicate. A bacteria or a virus, like the coronavirus, can survive on a surface for a limited amount of time before it dies. A prion can exist, in theory, forever. “Once it’s in the environment, it’s there sort of indefinitely,” Cory Anderson, a CWD expert at the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told Grist. 

Some studies show that grasses and other plants can absorb prions from animal saliva and feces and, in turn, impart the disease to other animals that eat the plants. “We use plants for our ceremonies, our sweat lodges, our food, and our tea,” Calling Last said. “If those plants have prions in them, what does that mean for us?” 

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have determined that dogs can detect CWD prions in deer feces in the lab. But experts have never attempted putting working hounds on the hunt for CWD in the field. Next summer, WD4C plans to conduct an in-the-field canine search for the prions, right here on the Blackfeet reservation.

It’s a new day in Glacier County and the sun is high in the sky as Calling Last turns right on a long, winding dirt road that leads to a ranch-style house in the middle of a large field. She’s taking the Working Dogs for Conservation crew to one last site on the reservation before this year’s research trip is over — a place she calls “ground zero.”

The women clamber out of their trucks and put on shoes they’ve been saving for this site, their “dirty” shoes. So little is known about the misfolded proteins that cause chronic wasting disease, and Calling Last and the Working Dogs team aren’t taking any chances. When they’re done surveying here, they’ll rinse their shoes with bleach and clean the dogs’ paws with disinfecting wipes in order to prevent rogue prions from hitching a ride back to Missoula with them.   

Wolf Tail, the hunter who shot the deer, steps out of his house and walks toward the parked cars. He knows why the researchers are here. He’s just as worried about CWD as they are and is glad to help them prepare for next year’s prion surveys. “Hunting is my way of life,” he said, standing in the driveway and holding his dog, a terrier-pug mix named Uno. Herds of deer amble past Wolf Tail’s front porch every day. He scans them religiously now, looking for sick animals. “It’s something that’s definitely been in the back of my mind now, since the testing,” he said. 

Charley Wolf Tail holds his dog, Uno. Grist / Zoya Teirstein

There’s no way Calling Last can search the entire reservation for prions. There are too many acres and not enough money or dogs. But she has figured out a way around those obstacles by making an educated guess. The way chronic wasting disease works is still shrouded in mystery; some ruminants get the disease after encountering prions, while others are exposed and walk away unscathed. Calling Last thinks the determining factor is immune system function — how healthy an animal is at the time of exposure. She’ll test that theory by having the dogs search for CWD in the same areas where they hunted for environmental contaminants this year. 

“The main point of the project is to see whether there is a correlation between these contamination sites and CWD. Like, do animals have lower immune systems because of contamination, and are these animals more likely to get sick?” Vasquez said. In short, there may be an overlap between environmental contamination and CWD, which would mean that protecting the community from one threat also protects it from the other.

Grist / Zoya Teirstein

Charley Wolf Tail’s house. Grist / Zoya Teirstein

Grist / Zoya Teirstein

A dead bird floats in the river behind Wolf Tail’s house. Grist / Zoya Teirstein

Grist / Zoya Teirstein

The otter and mink scat that the dogs find today, at ground zero, will help Calling Last test her hypothesis. Vasquez, a GPS tracking device hanging from a lanyard around her neck and a long leash in her hand, walks to the back of her truck and opens the tailgate. The two rescues peer out at her from their crates. 

“Let’s bring Frost out for this one,” Ott says, glancing at the Springer spaniel. Frost lets out a frantic bark at the sound of his name. 

“OK,” Vasquez says, opening the door to his crate, “You’re up, bud.” 

Vasquez puts a collar and a red vest on Frost, who is standing on the truck bed trembling with excitement. “Free,” she says when he’s suited up, and Frost jumps down from the truck. Vasquez walks around the back of Wolf Tail’s house and down to the stream, Frost bounding a few feet ahead of her. A bright, midday sun is shining. Calling Last, Vasquez, Richards, Ott, and the others who have been running alongside the dogs for three days straight are drained and quiet, slightly diminished by the significance of ground zero. The prions could be lurking anywhere, in the tall grass rippling across Wolf Tail’s backyard or the dark mud that lines the river bank. Frost is unfazed. There’s mink and otter scat to be found, and a squeaky reward to receive. 

Vasquez makes him heel and sit before she gives him the command that transforms the excited pup into a laser-focused hunting machine: “Go find,” she says.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Reservation Dogs on Dec 14, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

The world is struggling to figure out conservation. First Nations have some ideas.

Wed, 12/14/2022 - 03:30

This story was published in partnership with Mongabay.

As nearly 200 countries struggle to negotiate a new plan for nature conservation at the United Nations’ Biodiversity Conference in Montreal, Canada, known as COP15, Indigenous-led guardian programs in Canada may offer tangible successes in protecting crucial lands and waterways.

Representatives from around the world are aiming to hammer out a new agreement on a number of issues, a critical one being the preservation of at least 30 percent of the planet’s land and water resources by 2030, a plan known as “30×30”, to create protected areas and halt ecosystem and biodiversity loss.

Talks are currently moving slowly and Indigenous leaders say the conservation target must include Indigenous rights and inclusion for a successful final agreement, pointing to serious human rights violations and land expropriations as one potential outcome of an agreement without Indigenous input. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Tanzania, Kenya, Nepal and India have become flashpoint cases of people displaced to create protected areas, with large conservation NGOs such as the World Wildlife Fund and Wildlife Conservation Society linked to human rights abuses including group rape and killings

Many scientists, and some governments, say the best way to meet the 30×30 goal involves working with Indigenous communities to expand formal protected areas on their lands. Recommendations include the recognition of ownership, and management or governing rights to traditional lands, which often coincide with better conservation outcomes. According to estimates by the ICCA Consortium, an equity in conservation organization, 30 percent of land on Earth is already conserved if Indigenous lands are taken into account, and Indigenous communities conserve an estimated 80 percent of Earth’s remaining biodiversity. 

In Canada, First Nations guardian programs may offer one example of how governments can work with Indigenous peoples to reach global goals, Indigenous delegates at COP say.

“This COP is all about halting and reversing biodiversity loss,” said Valérie Courtois of the Innu community of Mashteutiatsh and director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative. “The best way to do that is by enabling Indigenous leadership.”

Courtois points to the Edéhzhíe Dehcho Protected Area and National Wildlife Area, a conservation zone covering 14,200 square kilometers (about 3.5 million acres) in Canada’s Northwest Territories, an area more than fifteen times larger than New York City. With wetlands storing climate-changing carbon dioxide, plenty of freshwater fish, and rich boreal forests, “the protected area on a northern plateau has long been an essential for local Indigenous culture and food security,” said Courtois. Designated a National Wildlife Area in 2022, it’s home to a diverse mix of northern wildlife, including woodland caribou, peregrine falcons, wood bison, wolverines and rusty blackbirds, according to Canadian government data. It is managed by local Dehcho and Tłichô Dene Indigenous communities and government officials say it offers an effective model for conservation.

Under the terms of the deal between the Canadian government and local Indigenous communities, the lands and waters of the area are permanently protected by federal legislation and safeguarded from any future oil, gas or mineral extraction.

As part of the area’s management, local community members – or guardians – are tasked with protecting the land, providing frontline eyes and ears monitoring ecosystem changes. This can include working with outside scientists on tracking animal populations or medicinal plants, negotiating with industrial interests nearby, or liaising with government officials on water management. “There is no typical day as a guardian,” Courtois said.

The guardians’ success in protecting species and water resources is part of a global trend, campaigners said, with territories controlled by Indigenous communities showing better conservation outcomes than other lands. Five years ago, there were 30 guardians programs in Canada. There are over 120 today.

Currently, some 370 million Indigenous people manage more than a quarter of the Earth’s land surface, according to a 2022 study published in the journal Nature Sustainability. These territories, where Indigenous communities have land rights, intersect with about 40% of the world’s protected areas and at least 36% of intact forest landscapes, providing data to campaigners who argue expanding Indigenous protected areas is among the most effective strategies for improving conservation.

“The 30×30 target is the world catching up to Indigenous ambitions,” Courtois said. “We tend to look at landscapes as what needs to stay rather than ‘what can I take.’” 

But some delegates say the plan doesn’t go far enough, pointing to research published earlier this year in the journal Science which found that 64 million square km (about 15 billion acres), or about 44% of Earth’s land area, needs to be protected in order to halt declines in biodiversity. In Latin America, Indigenous leaders are calling to protect 80% of the Amazon.

“Some provinces and jurisdictions may need 60 or 70 percent protection because of the type of environment they have and some not. We can’t just think of protecting 30 percent and we’re good. It’s about protecting the right 30 percent,” said Steven Nitah, former chief of the Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation and chief negotiator for the establishment of Thaidene Nëné or “Land of the Ancestors” Indigenous Protected Area. Nitah says Indigenous communities can provide key knowledge and information in designating which areas should be protected.

However, Indigenous delegates at COP15 remind observers that none of these spatial conservation targets should lead to “fortress conservation”, a practice grounded in the idea that for biodiversity to thrive, humans must be absent.

“Without a serious overhaul, the so-called 30×30 target will devastate the lives of Indigenous Peoples and will be hugely destructive for the livelihoods of other subsistence land-users, while diverting attention away from the real drivers of biodiversity and climate collapse,” a coalition of human rights groups including Amnesty International and The Rainforest Foundation said in a statement ahead of the COP15.

Between 1990 and 2014, more than 250,000 people were evicted from protected areas across 15 countries, according to a report from the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment last year. 

Amid these differences over conservation targets and approaches, COP15 opened without agreement on draft language that would set up high-level negotiations at the conference. 

“Negotiators are wasting time,” said Marco Lambertini, director general of WWF International, during a press conference. There are currently about 400 brackets in the agreement’s text – areas where negotiators still need to agree on. “We see slow progress, squirting around issues and attempts to dilute the text as a cover for continuing business as usual.”  

This will be the fifth time COP leaders will meet without a draft ready and are quickly running out of time to clean up the text’s brackets before the arrival of ministers on Thursday. Ministers need to have relatively clean text to discuss and agree on.

“After more than two years of working group negotiations and five meetings, what have they done? Did they use their time efficiently in the Geneva, Nairobi and Montreal negotiations?” Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, President, Association for Indigenous Women and Peoples of Chad, asked in a press conference. “Or did they use their time vacationing from one country to the next?”

At a press conference kicking off the beginning of COP15, Canada’s Environment Minister said Indigenous conservation will be a core topic at COP15 – and the biodiversity framework must be completed with the full partnership of Indigenous peoples. However, during a speech by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Indigenous protestors interrupted the proceedings, holding a banner that read “Indigenous genocide = Ecocide. To save biodiversity stop invading our lands” and called Trudeau a “colonizer.”

The following day, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged an additional $800 million CAD ($560 million USD) over seven years to support Indigenous protected areas, with plans to expand the conservation zones by nearly 1 million square kilometers (about 247 million acres), an area larger than Turkey.

That funding pledge follows multiple others over the years. In 2018, the Canadian government committed $118 million to support Indigenous-led conservation initiatives, including guardian programs in the Edéhzhíe Dehcho Protected Area and National Wildlife Area. In 2021, the country pledged another $454 million to support a host of Indigenous-led conservation initiatives, such as conservation on Inuit Owned Lands and Indigenous Partnerships for Species at Risk.

“Our Nations have governed and managed our territories for more than 14,000 years. When we exercise our stewardship authorities and responsibilities, everyone benefits,” Heiltsuk Chief Marilyn Slett, who is also president of Coastal First Nations in British Columbia, said in a statement following Trudeau’s announcement.

Some analysts say elements of the guardian programs – with local communities having land tenure security coupled with usage rights for hunting, fishing and ceremonial purposes, backed by outside financial support for on-the-ground monitoring – could offer a model for other ecologically sensitive areas, such as the Congo Basin. 

“First Nation delegates showed us that Canada was able to meet its own area-based conservation goals because it included Indigenous lands and management in conservation,” said Jennifer Tauli-Corpuz, global policy and advocacy leader at Nia Tero, during a conference event. “We are hoping that this can be a model for other countries to emulate.”

Others say what works in northern Canada doesn’t easily translate to other communities or ecosystems and there is no simple model for ensuring conservation and community land rights.

“We would never tell anyone how to behave,” Courtois said. “But we do hope that we serve as a bit of a model and inspiration for efforts of Indigenous communities in asserting their nationhood and rights and titles on their lands.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The world is struggling to figure out conservation. First Nations have some ideas. on Dec 14, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Report: African countries routinely violate Indigenous peoples rights

Wed, 12/14/2022 - 03:15

Since time immemorial, Indigenous Maasai have called the grasslands of Northern Tanzania home. But for years, the Tanzania government has been trying to convert the region, which is legally Maasai village land, to a game reserve or wildlife management area. In June, tensions came to a head when hundreds of Tanzanian security officers attempted to remove the Maasai from their homelands. Dozens of Maasai were shot or injured, hundreds fled to Kenya for medical treatment, and some were confined to their homes. Samwel Nangiria, a Maasai representative from Loliondo, says the evictions are just the latest example of the Tanzanian government’s disregard for the Maasai’s right to free, prior, informed consent, otherwise known as FPIC. “We are a people who believe in transparency,” Nangiria said. “Anything that is to be done, FPIC has to preside.”

FPIC is a right enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the International Labor Organization Convention (ILO 169), and other human rights laws. Before engaging in projects on Indigenous land, or that impact Indigenous peoples, countries must obtain the free, prior, and informed consent of the impacted Indigenous communities. But according to a new study, Indigenous peoples in Africa rarely participate in decisions the impact their culture, land use, or the environment. “It is a situation where grave human rights violations are occurring, such as forced dispossession and displacement, which threaten the physical and cultural survival of Indigenous Peoples,” the study reads. 

The study was conducted by the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), a global human rights organization, and recommends that states, businesses, and international agencies increase their protections for Indigenous human rights and facilitate Indigenous participation in land use decisions in Africa. The study also calls on international conservation organizations to promote and fund Indigenous-led conservation projects and for businesses to create a global fund for Indigenous people impacted by extractive industries. In Uganda, Indigenous communities have insufficient protections from mining interests, and in South Africa, mining companies are not required to secure community consent in their license applications. The report’s authors say strong FPIC laws and implementation would ensure that Indigenous communities have a say before any mining takes place on their lands. 

According to the study, only one country in Africa has ratified ILO 169, while more than a dozen countries in Latin America have, leading IWGIA to conclude that countries in Central and South America have made more progress toward implementing strong FPIC laws. For example, in Brazil and Colombia, courts have issued rulings calling for implementation of Indigenous protocols. This progress has also been sparked by Indigenous communities that have created their own FPIC protocols that they then pushed their governments to adopt. 

Around the world, Indigenous land is threatened by extractive industries like oil and logging companies, and conservation projects that exclude people from protected areas. Without FPIC protections, Indigenous people are vulnerable to exploitation, eviction, violence, and loss of culture from these activities. Multiple studies have also shown that Indigenous peoples are the best stewards of land for protecting the environment, and a lack of FPIC enforcement can also mean putting the environment and crucial biodiversity at greater risk. “They don’t value our knowledge, they don’t value our wisdom,” Nangiria said. 

The report also highlighted the Indigenous Ogiek in Kenya. In June, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights handed down a landmark ruling that ordered the Kenyan government to pay the Indigenous Ogiek people reparations for years of illegal evictions, give them title to their lands, and officially recognize them as an Indigenous peoples. But the African Court has no direct power over the Kenyan government, so the Ogiek have been negotiating with the Kenya government to determine how the ruling will be implemented and developing their own FPIC protocols. “We need them to really respect our traditions, our customs, and the way we do things,” Daniel Kobei, the executive director of the Ogiek Peoples Development Program said. 

At the United Nations biodiversity summit, delegates from around the world are negotiating a global conservation plan through 2030. Indigenous leaders are fighting for the final plan to include strong protections for Indigenous rights to free, prior, and informed consent. 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Report: African countries routinely violate Indigenous peoples rights on Dec 14, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

In Louisiana, an electoral upset could mean a breakthrough for renewables

Tue, 12/13/2022 - 03:45

In every state across the country, there’s a small government body that oversees the private utilities responsible for providing basic services like electricity, water, and telecommunications. These public servants are rarely paid much attention — most people likely have no idea who they are or what they do. But they got a rare moment in the spotlight in Louisiana last weekend when Davante Lewis, a Democrat and first-time political candidate, won a seat on the state’s Public Service Commission in a highly anticipated runoff election.

The race was animated by debates over campaign finance and corruption, which climate advocates claim has obstructed Louisiana’s transition to clean energy. Lewis’ supporters hope his win will help the state, which currently ranks 50th in the country for renewable energy production, chart a new path. But the issues at play in the election are not unique to Louisiana. 

“This race and the amount of money that’s pouring into it is contributing to the conversation of, what is the job and role of a public service commissioner?” said Shelby Green, a research fellow at the Energy and Policy Institute, a nonprofit utility watchdog group. “And is it ethical for a commissioner, whose job is to regulate companies, to receive campaign contributions from those companies?”

Lewis ran to unseat Democratic incumbent Lambert Boissiere III, who had served for three six-year terms representing the commission’s only majority-Black district, an area that stretches across 10 parishes between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The race went to a runoff after Boissiere failed to receive the 50 percent share of votes that he needed to win the November primary outright. On Saturday, Lewis beat Boissiere with 59 percent of the vote. With his win, Lewis made history as the first openly LGBTQ politician elected to a state-level office and the first openly LGBTQ Black person elected to any office in state history. The other commission seat up for election this year went to the Republican incumbent; the three remaining seats on the Louisiana Public Service Commission weren’t up for election this year.

Louisiana is one of only 11 states where utility regulators are elected — in the rest of the country they are appointed by the governor or legislature. These figures are tasked with ensuring that electricity and other services provided by utilities are reliable and that their rates are “just and reasonable” — a vague phrase embedded in most state regulatory acts. They do this by approving energy companies’ spending and growth plans, making them key players in determining the speed by which utilities adopt clean energy.

Lewis was backed by a super PAC largely funded by the advocacy arm of the Environmental Defense Fund, an environmental nonprofit. He ran on a platform of strengthening the electric grid against storms, transitioning the state to solar and wind power, and fighting the hefty fees energy companies tack onto electric bills. It was a message that many across south Louisiana were eager to hear. 

After Hurricane Ida tore through the region last year, causing widespread flooding and property damage, service providers took weeks to restore power in some areas, and more than 10 heat-related deaths were reported. Months later, residents saw their electric bills spike, as utility giant Entergy applied additional fees that it argued were necessary to repair transmission lines damaged in the storm — and which the Louisiana Public Service Commission approved. 

“That’s the same area that was heavily impacted by Hurricane Katrina and still feeling the remnants of that hurricane even today,” said Green. The district has not only been impacted by climate change, she added, “but also from an economic standpoint, they are the ones who lost their wealth the most during that time and are still recovering.”

Rate increases are not the only issue that brought people to the polls. Boissiere has accepted tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Entergy and other utilities, a fact that Lewis used to try to discredit him during his campaign. 

“Tonight, Louisiana has a public service commissioner who’s unafraid to hold Entergy accountable,” Lewis told a crowd of supporters at a pub in Baton Rouge on election night. “I owe this victory to the people of Louisiana and their commitment to a brighter, cleaner, and 100 percent renewable future.”

Power line poles are seen downed by Hurricane Ida in Houma, Louisiana on August 30, 2021. Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images

Environmentalists say Boissiere’s decisions have benefited coal-reliant energy companies at the expense of ratepayers. In 2019, he voted to change a long-standing policy by which homeowners with rooftop solar panels were credited the same amount of electricity that they supplied to the grid. They now only get back a third of the power that their systems generate. 

“It pushes the expansion and development of solar for rooftop residential and commercial to those who can afford it, which is largely people who have a pile of money,” said Logan Burke, the executive director of the Alliance for Affordable Energy, a utility-focused Louisiana advocacy group. “It is a major inequity in renewable policy in Louisiana.”

During Boissiere’s tenure, the Louisiana Public Service Commission has supported Entergy’s approach of building small-scale transmission projects and blocking larger regional transmission planning efforts, which advocates say would have improved reliability and helped transport renewable energy. 

Louisiana is one of only a handful of states that has no renewable portfolio standard, a policy that requires utilities to transition to cleaner sources of energy over time. In most states these policies have been enacted by the legislature, but the Louisiana Public Service Commission is endowed with the power to enact one without direction from the state. In 2009 the commission shelved a proposal to develop such a standard in Louisiana, deeming it too costly for utility customers. It was never raised again, despite the plunging cost of renewables: The cost of utility-scale solar power fell by 88 percent between 2010 and 2021, and the cost of onshore wind power fell by 68 percent during that period, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency, a trade group. Lewis has said that creating a renewable portfolio standard  for Louisiana will be one of his top priorities after entering office.

Louisiana is far from the only state where utilities have spent big to sway public service commission elections. For example, a 2019 probe found that the largest electric utility in Arizona spent millions of dollars in past elections to install commissioners who were friendly to the company. Lewis aims to end the practice altogether in Louisiana, which could be accomplished either through legislation or a pledge by commissioners. 

Despite the overwhelming support that Lewis received from environmental groups and the constituents of his district, the young politician has his work cut out for him. His success hinges on his ability to convince the other members of the commission to radically transform the way that it regulates utilities in the state. The five-member body has historically leaned against the development of renewables, but with Boissiere out and Republican commissioner Craig Greene signaling an interest in increasing competition in the state’s energy market, the odds may be in Lewis’ favor. That’s why clean energy advocates are hopeful that his win will usher a new era of clean energy in Louisiana. 

“I do think that there is an appetite from some sitting commissioners to make this transition,” Burke said. Over the past year, she has heard commissioners say that they received hundreds of phone calls from frustrated residents whose energy bills have skyrocketed due to the rising cost of natural gas. 

In a Louisiana Public Service Commission meeting last May, Democratic commissioner Foster Campbell blasted his colleagues for dragging their feet on renewable energy. “If we’d have all listened to all this global warming bologna and took it to heart a long time ago, if the companies would have worked together and the people would have worked together rather than splitting it down the middle and making it a political issue, we’d have been a long ways down the road and saved a lot of money,” he said.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline In Louisiana, an electoral upset could mean a breakthrough for renewables on Dec 13, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Midwest soil is eroding faster than ever. Modern farming could be to blame.

Tue, 12/13/2022 - 03:30

Midwest soil is eroding at an alarming rate according to new, first-of-its-kind research. 

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts found that the rate of soil erosion in the Midwestern US is 10 to 1,000 times greater than it was before modern agriculture practices reigned supreme across the region. The study found that before modern agriculture, the rate of soil erosion was vastly smaller than what is now deemed an acceptable amount of erosion by the United States Department of Agriculture, or USDA.

“The Midwest is losing soil, for most of these sites, about 100 times faster than it’s forming,” Isaac Larsen, a geoscience professor at the University of Massachusetts and a study co-author, told Grist.

Larsen, an Iowa native, said the loss of soil is a concern across the board, from the fragility of food production to concerns over groundwater pollution. He said the rich soil the Midwest is known for has been eroding and replaced with synthetic chemicals like fertilizers and pesticides. 

A different study, released earlier this year by Larsen, found that the Midwest lost roughly two millimeters of soil per year—which is double what the USDA deems acceptable—in the last 160 years. 

University of Massachusetts researchers found a method to get data on how much soil has been lost since before mass machinery and man disrupted the Earth’s surface. 

By studying the amount of beryllium-10, a rare element found in stardust that makes its way to the Earth’s surface after distant stars explode, scientists were able to find untouched Midwestern fields and prairies with rich amounts of space dust. When compared to fields used for corn and soybean production across the Midwest, which included sites in Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas, the tilled fields had far less concentration of beryllium-10.

Larsen said the Midwest has lower, natural erosion rates compared to other regions, but agriculture has sped up these rates drastically. 

“If we can find ways to still have agriculture but with erosion rates that are comparable to these long term erosion rates, we’re able to sustain thick, organic, rich soil,” Larsen said.

The push for climate-smart agriculture and farming solutions has grown. Millions of dollars have poured in from private corporations and nonprofits in recent years and now the federal government is pushing for $20 billion for farmers to adopt “climate smart” practices. 

Generally, two methods seen to help protect soil health are cover crops, fusing vegetation not meant to be harvested in between harvested crops to protect the soil from erosion, and no-till farming, where growers try not to disturb the soil during planting and harvesting as much as possible, to ensure nutrients stay locked into the ground and erosion doesn’t occur.

Both of these methods are used in combination with changes to harvests, such as planting perennial crops, across the country as the nation’s agricultural industry adapts to a warming climate. While the effectiveness of popular methods like cover crops has been challenged, despite more and more Midwest farmers using them, agriculture advocates continue to push for more farmers to adopt less intrusive methods to stop erosion. 

Dr. Cathy Day, climate policy coordinator for National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, or NSAC, an advocacy organization, said climate adoption and soil health vary by region, from the growth of agroforestry to a push for no fertilizer, but across the board, more funding is needed for farmers to learn and adopt practices to prevent soil loss. She said federal legislation was at the top of her mind to help farmers and growers look to change their methods.

“We’re asking that they put a priority on soil health, and put a priority on climate mitigation and adaptation as well,” Day said. 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Midwest soil is eroding faster than ever. Modern farming could be to blame. on Dec 13, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

US scientists have reached a breakthrough in nuclear fusion

Mon, 12/12/2022 - 16:19

The world is one step closer to producing clean energy using the same extremely powerful reaction that produces energy in the sun’s core. Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have achieved the first-ever net energy gain, or “ignition,” in a nuclear fusion reaction produced in a lab.

“We have taken the first tentative steps towards a clean energy source that could revolutionize the world,” said Under Secretary for Nuclear Security and National Nuclear Security Administration Administrator Jill Hruby in a press conference Tuesday. 

The announcement represents a significant scientific achievement. Nuclear fusion — when two lighter nuclei combine to form a single nucleus, releasing a large burst of energy — is a prospect that has both tantalized and eluded scientists for decades. Although it is still a long way off, commercial energy produced from this kind of controlled reaction could represent a near-limitless form of clean energy around the clock. 

“Ignition is a first step,” said Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory director Dr. Kim Budil after being greeted by applause, “and I cannot wait to see where it takes us.” 

Created by the United States government in the 1950s, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has been studying nuclear technology since the height of the Cold War. In 2009, the lab completed construction on the National Ignition Facility, which aims to explore “clean, sustainable sources of energy.” The facility began looking into what is known as inertial confinement fusion, which uses a laser to repeatedly hit a spec of hydrogen plasma.

At the moment, this form of fusion experiment takes up a lot of space: The National Ignition Facility is the size of three football fields. This is one reason why the technology would still take years to commercialize. 

According to David Hammer, a Cornell University professor who has been studying nuclear fusion for roughly 50 years,​​ a successful net energy gain based on inertial confinement fusion means the lab has realized its core mission. “The goal was to do essentially what they have just done,” he said, adding this approach is one of a few leading methods to producing nuclear fusion. 

Nuclear fusion is a process that releases, in the words of the International Atomic Energy Agency, “massive amounts of energy.” It’s hard to understate the promise nuclear fusion holds: It has the potential to produce nearly four million times more energy than traditional fossil fuel resources like gas, coal and oil. It uses an abundant element, emits zero greenhouse gases, and, unlike nuclear fission, does not produce long-lived radioactive waste.

Efforts to successfully create a net gain nuclear fusion reaction have spanned the public and private sectors. According to a 2022 survey conducted by the Fusion Industry Association, more than 30 companies are working on developing nuclear fusion technology, representing over $4.8 billion in funding. 

But a net gain in energy is just a first step. Next, researchers will need to make sure the reaction can successfully be replicated, Hammer said. “Then it means that it is possible to improve upon the accomplishment — make it so they can do it regularly, repeatedly, reproducibly.” 

* This article was updated on Dec. 13, 2022, following a press conference from the Department of Energy. 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline US scientists have reached a breakthrough in nuclear fusion on Dec 12, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

How a new subsidy for ‘green hydrogen’ could set off a carbon bomb

Mon, 12/12/2022 - 03:45

The United States stands at a pivotal point on the path to addressing climate change. The Inflation Reduction Act will over the next decade unleash hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies designed to make clean technologies so cheap they will be rapidly deployed, helping the nation cut emissions some 40 percent by 2030

If those subsidies work as intended, that is.

In the case of a new tax credit for clean hydrogen, a lot rides on that “if.” It could accelerate a critical climate solution that could drive down greenhouse gas emissions in many sectors of the economy. Or it could underwrite a process that actually increases emissions. The outcome depends largely on accounting rules that the Treasury Department has yet to write. 

“Getting this right is critical to making this credit work,” Nathan Iyer, a senior policy associate at the clean energy research nonprofit RMI, told Grist.

Decarbonization experts say clean hydrogen is an important tool for addressing climate change because it could more or less replace fossil fuels in many applications and doesn’t release CO2 when burned. Some see it fueling trucks, cargo ships, and even airplanes. Others consider it a promising replacement for coal in producing steel. It also holds potential as a means of storing wind and solar energy to be drawn upon when those resources aren’t available. At the very least, it could replace the dirty hydrogen we use today, largely to make fertilizer.

Although hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, you can’t just dig it up like fossil fuels. Instead, it has to be pulled off of other compounds, like methane (CH4) or water (H2O). Almost all of the hydrogen used today is derived from methane, or natural gas, in a process that releases carbon dioxide. But it’s possible — albeit more expensive — to make hydrogen with zero emissions through electrolysis. All it takes is electricity, water, and a device called an electrolyzer, which splits H2O into hydrogen and oxygen. Use renewable energy and the process is emissions-free — creating a product often referred to as “green hydrogen.” Only a handful of plants around the world use electrolysis, which contributed about 0.04 percent of the global supply of hydrogen in 2021. 

There are other options for lowering hydrogen emissions, including installing carbon capture equipment on conventional hydrogen plants. The new tax credit is designed to make various cleaner production techniques more competitive with conventional methods. But it offers the largest return — $3 per kilogram of hydrogen — for a near-zero emissions process, giving a boost to green hydrogen in particular. There is no cap on the benefit a producer can earn, and the total payout across the industry could be tens of billions of dollars over the next decade. 

In theory, splitting water molecules with renewable energy is an elegant solution, but that description glosses over a key problem: Many producers plan to draw power from the electric grid in addition to, or instead of, a wind or solar farm. Given that much of the nation’s grid power comes from fossil fuels, the energy-intensive nature of electrolysis could end up generating more emissions than conventional natural gas-based hydrogen.

“The electricity has to be extremely clean for the emissions to actually be low and even remotely environmentally friendly,” said Wilson Ricks, a mechanical and aerospace engineer earning his doctorate in Princeton University’s ZERO Lab. Ricks recently published a working paper that identified ways to credibly lower the climate impacts of grid-connected hydrogen.

Now it will be up to the U.S. Treasury Department to ensure that the tax credit doesn’t reward hydrogen producers for a process that could move us farther away from our climate goals than we are today. 

The Hybrit pilot plant in Lulea, Sweden has started producing lower-carbon steel using green hydrogen. Steffen Trumpf/picture alliance via Getty Images

Before the Inflation Reduction Act passed in August, most green hydrogen projects being proposed in the U.S. were set up the same way, said Matthew Bravante, a hydrogen analyst at clean energy research firm BloombergNEF. “They were all grid-connected,” he said.

There are a few reasons for this. Electrolyzers are expensive, and it makes the most financial sense to run them 24/7 to maximize productivity. That’s not possible with wind or solar alone. What’s more, Bravante said, the companies making these complex machines don’t know if cycling them on and off as clouds pass or breezes stop degrades the equipment. As a result, manufacturers are hesitant to warranty them for such use, undermining project developers’ ability to raise capital.

There are other considerations. Any producer piping hydrogen to a buyer requiring a constant supply must use the grid to ensure a steady output or build storage tanks to compensate for intermittent production. And some simply do not have enough land to build wind or solar farms. 

Grid-powered electrolyzers might make business sense, but they are harder to square as a climate solution. Some 60 percent of U.S. electricity is currently generated by burning fossil fuels. If you used the average grid electricity to produce hydrogen today, the process would release about twice the emissions of conventional hydrogen production.

Before the tax credit was created, green hydrogen producers had a plan to get around this problem: “They were either going to use renewable energy credits or virtual power purchase agreements to convince an investor they were green,” Bravante said.

These are both market-based mechanisms that many companies use today to “procure” clean energy when they connect to the dirty grid, but researchers have found that they aren’t fit for purpose.  

Renewable energy credits are tradable certificates, each representing one megawatt-hour of electricity that has been generated somewhere, at some point, by a wind or solar farm.  Research has repeatedly shown that the purchase of such credits fails a critical test — it doesn’t help bring new clean resources onto the grid, so it doesn’t actually reduce emissions.  

Virtual power purchase agreements are essentially a more sophisticated way for a company to buy clean energy certificates, by entering into a long-term contract directly with a renewable energy provider. These contracts typically are associated with new wind and solar projects, but they have another problem. Most renewable energy sources don’t generate power 24/7. If a hydrogen plant signs an agreement with a new, local solar farm but continues operating after dark, a nearby natural gas or coal plant will probably ramp up to meet that demand.

This will remain an issue even as the grid becomes cleaner, said Ricks, the Princeton doctoral student. In his working paper, he used an economic model to look at the emissions impacts of grid-connected hydrogen in the western United States in 2030, including in Southern California, which is expected to have an 80 percent clean grid by that date. Under that scenario, even if hydrogen plants purchase enough solar power to cover their cumulative energy needs, their nighttime demand will still be met by coal- and gas-fired plants. That could prop up dirty power plants that would otherwise be slated for closure. “Just running those more may well be the cheapest option for supplying 24/7 demand for electricity,” Ricks said. 

Emissions could surge as a result. Ricks estimates that these “consequential emissions” for a Southern California hydrogen plant would amount to about 20 kilograms of carbon dioxide per kilogram of hydrogen produced. That’s five times higher than even the lowest threshold that the Inflation Reduction Act sets for earning the tax credit. Emissions could be double that amount in coal-heavy parts of the country like Wyoming. But producers could reap the full $3 clean hydrogen subsidy if the government doesn’t take these emissions into account.

A coal mine in Kemmerer, Wyoming that serves the nearby Naughton power plant, which is scheduled to be decommissioned in 2025. Natalie Behring/Getty Images

These issues are at the center of an ongoing debate in Europe about how to define green hydrogen, a conversation now starting in the U.S. Within the next year, the Treasury and Energy Departments will develop guidance outlining whether companies can use market-based mechanisms to demonstrate eligibility for the tax credit and other subsidies, and if so, under what conditions. Iyer said the agencies must strike a balance between keeping emissions in check and supporting an emerging industry.

The guidance “has to be strict enough to actually reduce emissions, flexible enough to put electrolyzers on the grid and actually build out these projects, and it has to be simple enough that the IRS can do it,” he said.

The government could easily achieve two out of three, making the rules so strict that only projects that rely exclusively on dedicated renewables qualify. Bravante said that would likely stunt the industry’s growth but the tax credit is generous enough that some projects will still get built.

At least one company, Hy Stor, is already going this route with a hydrogen plant it’s building in Mississippi. Hy Stor has acquired 70,000 acres of land — some of it across the border in Louisiana — for the facility and the solar and wind farms needed to power it. The plant will also utilize underground caverns to store the hydrogen so that it can provide a steady stream to customers. “We’re not trying to put an asterisk or small print,” said company CEO Laura Luce. “We’re really trying to focus on a clean standard where someone knows exactly what they’re getting.”

Fabian Sommer/picture alliance via Getty Images

Rather than forcing all green hydrogen producers to emulate Hy Stor, Ricks argues that the Treasury should allow grid-connected projects — under three conditions: Any renewable energy credits or purchase agreements they use to claim lower emissions should be associated with new clean energy resources, in the same region as the hydrogen plant, and match the plant’s electricity consumption on an hourly, instead of annual, basis. This strategy is also known as 24/7 carbon-free energy.

Adhering to these three requirements might mean that a hydrogen plant buying solar power through a purchase agreement would have to limit its operations to daylight hours, or earn the tax credit for production only during those hours. But it could also encourage hydrogen producers to buy power from renewables like geothermal plants that generate electricity when a solar farm cannot. Such technologies are needed to create a truly clean electricity grid, but they are harder to finance than wind and solar. Rules governing the hydrogen tax credit could give them a much-needed boost.

“This hydrogen load could be a real subsidy for geothermal, for long-duration storage, for all the things we need,” said Iyer. “And if we do it badly, it could just keep a natural gas plant alive. And then this accounting fiction is used to not only keep the natural gas plant alive, but also provide a massive credit to do so.”

Ricks’ modeling showed that if hydrogen producers follow these three conditions, their grid-connected hydrogen will be no worse for the climate than hooking up directly to renewables. Enforcing these principles would certainly raise development costs, but Ricks said that the $3-per-kilogram maximum tax credit would still make projects feasible — especially as electrolyzer prices come down.

Ricks’ solution isn’t perfect. His study also found that the tax credit creates a perverse incentive: It’s so lucrative that it could enable hydrogen companies to outcompete other buyers of renewable energy. In some parts of the country it could end up supporting clean hydrogen production at the expense of cleaning up the electricity that ordinary people use. In Wyoming, for example, hydrogen producers could buy up all the cheap wind that would otherwise replace gas and coal on the grid.

To Ricks, this tradeoff might be worth it to help the hydrogen industry scale up and bring costs down over the next several years. And he’s confident that asking companies to meet the three conditions is the best way to minimize the risks. “It’s not going to completely solve the problem of us prioritizing hydrogen over electricity decarbonization, which is effectively what a subsidy of this scale is doing, but it will make that hydrogen production as clean as we can effectively make it.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline How a new subsidy for ‘green hydrogen’ could set off a carbon bomb on Dec 12, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

PG&E cuts thousands of workers ahead of winter wildfire maintenance

Mon, 12/12/2022 - 03:30

Pacific Gas & Electric, California’s private utility company that maintains a monopoly over electric service in the state, let go of thousands of contractors and employees across multiple trades over the last month. 

Union leaders told members that the layoffs were due to overspending, and that as Pacific Gas & Electric, or PG&E, overruns its budget towards the end of the year, the company decided to push back fourth-quarter work into the new year.

Workers let go include vegetation management inspectors, tree trimmers, electrical linesmen, and pole testers — all work that is critical to wildfire mitigation. 

“[We] do annual maintenance to ensure fire safety and have deadlines to get it done,” said a vegetation management inspector in the north Bay Area who requested anonymity. “By pushing back fourth-quarter work, [the crews] are falling behind one to two months.” The delay could be costly: Winter is often the best time to prune trees, when cracks and deadwood are more visible and trees are not actively growing.    

According to reports from the state’s Office of Energy Infrastructure Safety, PG&E is already far behind on work orders for line maintenance. “That’s a major safety concern,” said Mark Toney, executive director of TURN, a utility ratepayer advocacy group, adding, “I keep getting calls from hospitals and housing projects that can’t get connected to the grid.” 

The private utility, one of the largest in the country, has played a notorious role in sparking some of the largest fires in the state, including the Dixie Fire in 2021 and the Camp Fire in 2018, the deadliest fire in California history. In 2019, PG&E filed for bankruptcy after announcing a $13.5 billion settlement with California wildfire victims. In April of last year, it was put under a period of  “enhanced oversight and enforcement” by the California Public Utilities Commission due to concerns that PG&E wasn’t clearing trees away from power lines fast enough, raising the risk of fallen branches sparking another fire. But the commission voted to lift the probation last week, saying that the company had made progress.

“They should be moved up the ladder of probation,” not have their restrictions removed, said Toney. “They keep causing fires and failing inspections.”

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 1245, or IBEW 1245, the union that represents PG&E workers, provided no comment on the layoffs. But workers who attended a union meeting on Thursday said leaders referenced the job losses as “large and unprecedented,” said that workers laid off across crafts numbered in the thousands, and that decisions were being made by PG&E upper management because of budget constraints.  

The utility has been at work burying, or undergrounding, 10,000 miles of overhead power lines in high-fire risk districts as part of its wildfire mitigation plan, a labor intensive and pricey undertaking that will cost an estimated $25 billion.  

Toney and other rate payer advocates have criticized the initiative as a way for the utility to invest in capital projects that increase shareholder returns while neglecting the work that is really needed. “I am concerned that they are diverting money from basic operations, maintenance, and repairs and putting it into undergrounding and other capital projects that create profit,” said Toney. He added, “It’s hard to understand how they’re running out of cash with these double digit rate increases,” referring to the utility’s proposal to hike rates by about 20 percent in 2023, after a similar jump in 2022. 

In a statement to Grist, PG&E said that the company was cutting back contractors based on the amount of work that needs to be done and that they typically use contractors as a flexible resource that they ramp down at the end of the year.

“Overall, we have reduced the number of contractors working for PG&E in recent weeks due to several factors, including completing or nearly completing the 2022 work plans these contractors had supported,” said PG&E spokesperson Matt Nauman. He also said that snow in the mountains has caused some work to stop for the season and that PG&E is looking to bring more of its tree work in-house by hiring 150 vegetation management inspectors as employees. Currently almost all the tree work is done by contractors.

The crews have been told they can likely expect to return to work in January and February, but according to another vegetation management contractor who was let go and was at the union meeting on Thursday (but who asked not to be named), “many groups weren’t given a set return date” and “‘no guarantees’ was emphasized at length.” Rex Casteel, who cleared hazard logs in the town of Paradise after the devastating Camp Fire, added that while this is only his fifth winter, he has never encountered anything like this work stoppage before. 

“They saved money at the end of this year, but they are going to be squeezing their workforce to get compliance done next year,” said one worker. 

Update, December 12, 2022: This piece has been updated to anonymize the names of two sources.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline PG&E cuts thousands of workers ahead of winter wildfire maintenance on Dec 12, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

The time is right to ban uranium mining in the Grand Canyon. But the Senate needs to hurry.

Mon, 12/12/2022 - 03:15

A deadline is looming for the Senate to take action to stop new uranium mines adjacent to the Grand Canyon, conservation experts and Indigenous tribal leaders warned this week. An existing mine just south of the canyon, though dormant for 30 years, already poses a threat to nearby ecosystems and communities and is expected to resume operations in early 2023.  

The Senate has until January 3 to vote on the Grand Canyon Protection Act, a bill that would make a 20-year moratorium on new uranium mines near the Grand Canyon permanent, saving more than 1 million acres of public lands from development. The act has already been passed twice by the House of Representatives.

After the January 3 deadline, the legislative slate is wiped clean ahead of the start of the 118th Congress, with no promise of the Grand Canyon Protection Act being reintroduced to the Senate agenda next year.  

The operations of the existing Pinyon Plain Mine near the Grand Canyon would nonetheless not be impacted by the bill. While a 20-year moratorium on uranium mining near the Grand Canyon was implemented in 2012, Pinyon Plain was exempt due to an earlier agreement.  

The Grand Canyon forms part of the Colorado River Basin, a vast watershed with critical tributaries and reservoirs which provide water to over 40 million people in Southwest states and California. The territories of Indigenous tribes such as the Navajo Nation are also located there. But for decades, the region has been under intense economic and environmental pressure from uranium mining operations. Countless members of the Navajo Nation have suffered from higher rates of cancer and respiratory illnesses due to the nuclear waste left over from Cold War era uranium extraction. 

Other Native communities in the area are also under threat from mining interests. Since the 1980s, the Havasupai Tribe, whose territory lies within the Grand Canyon, has fought against the ongoing operation of the nearby Pinyon Plain Mine. The controversial mine has been responsible for rupturing important groundwater resources during the drilling process, effectively depleting an essential natural resource.

“It is time to permanently ban uranium mining — not only to preserve the Havasupai Tribe’s cultural identity and our existence as the Havasupai People, but to protect the Grand Canyon for generations to come,” said the tribe’s chairman Thomas Siyuja, Sr.

“From an environmental standpoint, water resource standpoint and a cultural standpoint, it’s just the wrong place to do it,” said Amber Reimondo, the energy director at the Grand Canyon Trust, a local conservation and environmental justice organization. Reimondo explained that the Colorado River Basin is so complex and extensive that any contamination of its waters could have profound consequences for communities hundreds of miles away.  

Hundreds of active uranium mining claims have been made near Grand Canyon National Park. These claims could develop into full-fledged operations if the Grand Canyon Protection Act doesn’t pass a Senate vote.   

Uranium is a radioactive element that nonetheless occurs naturally in the earth’s soil, rock, and groundwater. The element is so ubiquitous in the environment that it is a major contributor to normal “background radiation.” When condensed in rock formations, uranium is far less radioactive than when it is extracted during mining operations. 

Mining of uranium is essential for nuclear power generation. But to extract uranium, mining operations often use a mix of chemicals to dissolve the element from underground rock formations and into groundwater. The exposed uranium extraction – now far more radioactive – is then pumped to the surface through mine shafts and placed in surface-level evaporation ponds. The waste from the entire process can cause food, water, and air contamination.

Uranium mining in the Grand Canyon region has unsurprisingly been opposed by major environmental organizations. But mining has also faced pushback from local business owners who depend on a steady stream of tourists from around the world who expect to visit a pristine and beautiful natural environment. Arizona voters are also overwhelmingly supportive of the Grand Canyon Protection Act. The threat that uranium mining poses to healthy water resources is of particular concern in the Southwest, which is facing historic drought in the Colorado River Basin – which provides water to over 40 million Americans – and alarmingly low water levels in its reservoirs.  

But banning new uranium mines on the federal lands that make up the Grand Canyon would only address part of the problem. The Pinyon Plain Mine would still pose a threat to natural resources that tribal nations depend on and visitors cherish. In addition, tribal leaders and environmental advocates are still struggling to get the federal government to clean up the radioactive waste from hundreds of abandoned mines.  

In the rush to take advantage of nuclear power’s purported green energy benefits, Reimondo, of Grand Canyon Trust, says, the same mistakes of the fossil fuel era are being made in the clean energy era.

“Indigenous communities from around the world have known for hundreds of years that uranium is something you don’t touch,” she said. “Because once you expose it, it’s like a Pandora’s Box, and you can’t close it again.”

Correction, December 12, 2022: This story has been corrected to reflect more accurately the potential consequences of uranium mining on the Colorado River Basin; the future of the Pinyon Plain Mine; and the legislative hurdles to pass the Grand Canyon Protection Act.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The time is right to ban uranium mining in the Grand Canyon. But the Senate needs to hurry. on Dec 12, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

An Indian spiritual leader is urging the world to ‘save soil.’ Experts say he’s not helping.

Fri, 12/09/2022 - 03:45

On a clear, bright day in March, a few dozen people gathered in Parliament Square in central London, many of them wearing green T-shirts and carrying signs emblazoned with the words “Save Soil.” They were there to see an Indian spiritual leader named Sadhguru, who was about to set off on a 13,000-mile motorcycle journey through Europe, the Middle East, and India in a bid to raise awareness of a growing problem: the widespread loss and degradation of the world’s soils. 

In front of a statue of Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, flanked by members of the British Parliament and India’s high commissioner to the United Kingdom, Sadhguru proclaimed that the future looked grim: Without healthy soil, it would become increasingly difficult to grow food, an issue he’s previously warned would lead to mass starvation and civil war. But now, he said, humanity has a chance for redemption, if people all around the world call on their governments to protect soil. 

“Soil is one aspect where everybody has to come together, because all of us come from the same soil, live upon the same soil, and go back to the same soil,” he told the listening crowd, and more than 100,000 people watching the event live on YouTube. “The question is only, do we get this point now, or when we are beneath the Earth?”

The world, in some sense, appears to be listening. In February, the United Nations’ World Food Programme agreed to collaborate with Sadhguru’s Isha Foundation, the umbrella organization for the Save Soil movement, on “conversations, awareness, and outreach” around soil and food security in India. Sadhguru has addressed world leaders at the annual meeting of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification in Ivory Coast and the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. His most popular video on the Save Soil movement has been viewed more than 5.6 million times on YouTube.

But as the campaign has gained traction worldwide, it’s also attracted criticism for its vague methodology and singular focus on the physical characteristics of soil, to the point of excluding larger, more systemic issues like climate change and the industrialization of agriculture. Activists in India have drawn attention to the Isha Foundation’s history of failed environmental campaigns and clashes with Indigenous people, while calling out Sadhguru’s ties to Hindu nationalism and authoritarian leaders like Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. And scientists have challenged the Save Soil movement’s policy prescriptions for reversing soil degradation, bringing the effectiveness of the campaign into question. 

Scientists have challenged the Save Soil movement’s policy prescriptions for reversing soil degradation. INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP via Getty Images

“It’s extremely performative,” Rohan Antony, a researcher based in India who works for global nonprofit A Growing Culture, which promotes sustainable food systems around the world. “There’s nothing really happening except everyone saying, ‘save soil.’ And whose soil? Why is the soil depleted? None of these questions are being asked.”

The stakes are high, as the 65-year-old Sadhguru, born Jagadish Vasudev, has a global audience. With his meandering anecdotes and casual turns of phrase, he strikes a balance between wisdom and relatability, a charismatic mix that’s drawn in the likes of Will Smith, Deepak Chopra, and the Dalai Lama, who have publicly praised him or appeared in promotional materials for the Save Soil campaign. He has done extended interviews with singer Demi Lovato and actor Matthew McConaughey and made appearances on The Daily Show and The Joe Rogan Experience.

But activists and politicians have accused Sadhguru, whose foundation did not respond to requests for comment from Grist, of starting environmental campaigns to gin up publicity and donations despite having little experience with environmental work. In 2019, he led a campaign to plant trees along the Cauvery River in southern India that was questioned by activists for promoting an overly simplistic solution that might end up actually damaging the environment. Youth climate activist and Fridays for Future India founder Disha Ravi has also criticized Sadhguru for “grabbing land from Adivasis,” India’s Indigenous communities, to build the Isha Foundation headquarters in Coimbatore. Meanwhile, Indian outlet Newslaundry reported last year that the compound was built illegally in a protected elephant habitat. (The Isha Foundation has denied all these allegations.)

In launching his latest venture, the Save Soil movement, Sadhguru is bringing attention to a real problem: According to the United Nations, 52 percent of the earth’s agricultural land is “moderately or severely” degraded, a catchall term for a drop in quality that can mean soil is eroded, less fertile, or contaminated with toxic chemicals. Without major changes, a UN report released earlier this year found that an area the size of South America will become degraded by 2050, even as more food will be needed to support a population that’s expected to reach 9.8 billion that year. 

Soil is being worn away much faster than it’s being replaced, said Jo Handelsman, a biologist and author of the book A World Without Soil. And the soil that’s left has been stripped of its nutrients and organic matter, making it less productive for growing crops and more vulnerable to extreme weather like flooding and drought. 

Fifty-two percent of the earth’s agricultural land is “moderately or severely” degraded, a catchall term for a drop in quality that can mean soil is eroded, less fertile, or contaminated with toxic chemicals. Auscape/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

“It’s a very dire situation,” Handelsman said. “I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to say that.” 

But while the Save Soil movement has been clear on the impacts of soil degradation, it’s much more vague on the causes — and that’s by design. In a talk in London the day before setting off on his motorcycle journey, Sadhguru emphasized that the campaign is definitively “not a protest,” and that he doesn’t want to lay blame on anyone — corporations or individuals — for the soil crisis. “This confrontational approach to ecological and environmental solutions,” he said, “has to go.” 

This big-tent strategy obscures the systemic issues that lead to soil degradation, namely the shift from small-scale, locally self-sustaining agriculture to a globalized system that relies on the cheap export of a handful of cash crops, said Antony of A Growing Culture. That transition, which is connected to colonialism and the violent seizure of Indigenous land, has also devastated small farmers in countries like India and the United States, who are either forced to give up their farms to large-scale producers or use practices that damage the soil to compete economically. 

Some of those practices include a worldwide switch over the last 150 years to “modern” farming techniques like plowing, which turns over the soil and exposes it to the air, Handelsman said. That has the dual effect of drying out the earth, making it more vulnerable to erosion, and speeding up the breakdown of organic matter, which makes the soil less nutritious and releases carbon dioxide. The technological shift in farming after World War II, known as the Green Revolution, also encouraged practices like monocropping, or growing just one type of plant on an area of land — particularly high-yield, annual crops like corn and soybeans. These systems have reduced the amount of plant matter that returns to the soil; every year, farmers cut away the crops they’ve grown without leaving anything to decompose into the ground. 

“It’s industrial agriculture, not small-scale, peasant agriculture, that’s ruined soil,” Antony said. “But the Save Soil movement makes it sound like the soil is just magically ruined because of our collective abuse of the environment.” 

Climate change is exacerbating the issue, with extreme weather events like droughts and heavy rains alternately drying topsoil into dust and washing it away. But Sadhguru has said that he sees soil as a separate issue, telling a crowd in London the day before the sendoff event that “we are talking about climate change, carbon emissions, and global warming … but we are not addressing soil.” Depoliticizing the problem the way the Save Soil campaign does, Antony said, allows governments and corporations responsible for soil depletion to signal their support without changing their practices or making fundamental shifts like redistributing land, which he called a form of “greenwashing.” 

Instead, the Save Soil movement has called for governments to pass laws that require agricultural soils to contain 3 to 6 percent organic content, which it says is the minimum for growing healthy food; in some parts of India, that number currently stands at less than 0.5 percent. It’s unclear how much success the campaign has had; while countries like Nepal and six Caribbean nations have signed agreements with Save Soil pledging to halt soil degradation on their territory, they have not yet stated how they plan to do so. 

Save Soil also claims to have drafted “a policy for soil regeneration on the planet, based on soil types, latitudinal positions, and agricultural traditions of a given nation,” though viewing it online requires users to agree to “support the Save Soil movement” and not comment on or criticize the policy publicly without permission. (Save Soil did not respond to Grist’s requests to see the document without agreeing to those terms.) 

Meanwhile, experts say the goal set by the Save Soil campaign may be overly simplistic. Increasing organic matter by any amount will help boost fertility, improve biodiversity, and fight climate change, as plants that draw carbon dioxide from the air store some of it in the soil once they decompose. But fixating on a specific number obscures the variation in soil types across countries and environments, Handelsman said. Some agricultural soils might, for example, already be at 3 percent but could use an incentive to improve, while others will never get there but can still benefit from smaller increases. 

Instead, she recommends a strategy that rewards practices rather than focusing on outcomes; for example, implementing no-till agriculture and planting cover crops, low-value plants like rye and barley that stay in the soil during winter months when it would otherwise lie fallow. Others, like Indian environmental activist Leo Saldanha, recommend turning to agroecology, mingling native plants with grazing animals and crops grown for food consumption in a sustainable manner. Andrew Smith, a farmer and head of operations at the Rodale Institute, a Pennsylvania nonprofit that researches organic agriculture, said integrating organic practices — like using manure and compost instead of synthetic fertilizers — will also be necessary to improve the health of the soil. 

“Most farmers want healthy soil,” Handelsman said. “It’s not that they don’t want to use these methods. It’s that either they’re not provided sufficient education, or the financial wherewithal, to make that switch.” 

Soil degradation has been linked to a shift from small-scale, locally self-sustaining agriculture to a globalized system that relies on the cheap export of a handful of cash crops. Aleksander Murzyak/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Sadhguru has intentionally avoided endorsing any particular solution for restoring soil health, saying it should be left up to farmers to decide. But Saldanha told Grist that the Save Soil campaign overlooks the voices of India’s farmers and agricultural communities. “It disrupts the efforts put in for decades by farmers and the farmers’ movement to return to a system of pastoralism and agriculture, in which soil health, biodiversity, water security, good water, good food, become the central part of living,” Saldanha said. 

And Sadhguru’s ostensible deference to farmers on implementing solutions presumably includes large-scale farmers — but there’s an escalating debate over whether soil health issues can truly be addressed by corporations and large food producers, some of which have embraced “regenerative agriculture” in name while continuing to rely on practices like monocropping that deplete the soil. Some scientists, like Handelsman, believe larger producers can have a role to play in restoring soil health because they’re better able to absorb the economic risk of changing their practices, however slowly. 

But for Antony, the only way forward is to move toward a system of food sovereignty, where farmers and local food producers have control over what they plant and how they grow it. This goal is especially salient in India, where farmers are still dependent on seeds introduced by companies such as Bayer (formerly Monsanto) to grow high-yield crops that drive soil degradation and can throw farmers into a cycle of debt. 

“If we don’t democratize this control, then farmers will always be shackled to the transnational corporations,” Antony said. “And they will not be free, the soil will continue to be tilled … until it can never replenish itself.” 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline An Indian spiritual leader is urging the world to ‘save soil.’ Experts say he’s not helping. on Dec 9, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Wall Street’s biggest names are backing off their climate commitments

Fri, 12/09/2022 - 03:30

Shortly before COP26, last year’s United Nations climate conference in Glasgow, financial institutions were rushing to announce their climate commitments. The conference’s leadership and Mark Carney, a special envoy appointed by the United Nations to push private finance to invest in climate solutions, announced the creation of the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net-Zero, or GFANZ.

The initiative’s goal was to increase the number of financial institutions committed to net-zero principles — essentially a promise that the work done by these institutions (investing, lending money, managing major assets like pension funds) would not cause an overall increase in the world’s carbon emissions. During the conference, Carney announced that the coalition had grown to 450 firms responsible for $130 trillion in assets, a pot of wealth equivalent to more than five times the gross domestic product of the United States.

“You need things like GFANZ that are relentlessly, ruthlessly, absolutely focused on that transition to net-zero,” he told Bloomberg at the time.  

But just a year later, many Wall Street firms are backtracking. In September, the Financial Times reported that several banks, including Bank of America and JP Morgan, were concerned about accidentally running afoul of United Nations climate rules and being held legally liable for their commitments, leading them to consider pulling out of GFANZ. Blackrock and Vanguard, the world’s largest asset managers, then confirmed in October that their net zero commitments would not preclude them from investing in fossil fuels, despite concerns that new fossil fuel investment is incompatible with timely decarbonization. (Asset managers steward money on behalf of major investors like sovereign wealth funds, insurers, and pension funds.) And finally, earlier this week, Vanguard officially announced that it is resigning from the Net Zero Asset Managers initiative, a sector-specific alliance under the GFANZ umbrella. 

Initiatives like the Net Zero Asset Managers initiative “can advance constructive dialogue, but sometimes they can also result in confusion about the views of individual investment firms,” the company said in a statement, which appears to reference the backlash that Vanguard and other firms have received from Republican attorneys general for considering environmental concerns in some of the investments they offer.

In the last few years, as the global costs of climate change have become more apparent, pressure on companies to reduce carbon emissions and prioritize environmental initiatives has increased dramatically. Asset managers like Blackrock and Vanguard largely joined this call and were supportive of many shareholder-led climate proposals that resulted in the appointment of new directors at ExxonMobil, the adoption of emission reductions at companies like Chevron, and the reporting of risks from the energy transition to a company’s bottomline. 

But as climate-focused investment practices (such as screening out fossil fuel companies in certain boutique index funds) gained traction and companies joined GFANZ, questions mounted about whether Wall Street’s apparent climate-consciousness was actually moving the needle on net zero, if climate commitments would run afoul of firms’ fiduciary duties (by steering investors away from profitable-but-polluting investments), and if they would be able to abide by the United Nations’ climate targets

The discussion is complicated by the fact that many fossil fuel investments managed by Vanguard and other asset management firms are held in index funds that track the performance of the overall stock market — the kind that many American workers use to save for retirement, for example. These index funds invest in a broad range of companies regardless of those companies’ carbon emissions, and GFANZ didn’t change that — in part because changing the makeup of a fund would require the approval of investors and could result in legal challenges. As a result, Vanguard’s commitments apply primarily to a subset of funds that it actively manages to adhere to vaguely-defined environmental, social, and governance principles, or ESG. It offers these funds to investors who also support those principles and want to put their money behind them.

Vanguard appeared to underscore this distinction, however vaguely, in its decision to withdraw from GFANZ, stating that it wanted to “provide the clarity our investors desire about the role of index funds and about how we think about material risks, including climate-related risks — and to make clear that Vanguard speaks independently on matters of importance to our investors.” More than 80 percent of its clients’ assets are in index funds, it noted. 

Wall Street has also been facing pressure from Republican lawmakers and attorneys general, who have accused firms of “woke capitalism.” They’ve made sustainable investment practices a flash point, opening investigations into banks that have committed to net-zero and reportedly planning to hold hearings on the issue in the new Republican-majority House of Representatives that assumes office in January. Earlier this week, the Republican staff of the Senate Banking Committee released a report pillorying BlackRock, Vanguard, and another asset manager for using “shareholder voting power to advance a liberal political agenda.”

Last month, Republican attorneys general also filed a protest with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission against Vanguard buying shares of U.S. utilities, arguing that the firm’s commitment to net-zero meant that it might push the utilities to move away from coal and natural gas, even if fossil fuel buildup would be better for investors than renewables. “This will undoubtedly affect the cost and reliability of energy supplies,” they said.  

Kirsten Snow Spalding, a vice president at the sustainability nonprofit Ceres, said in a statement that it is “unfortunate that political pressure is impacting this crucial economic imperative and attempting to block companies from effectively managing risks — a crucial part of their fiduciary duty.”

While financial institutions face political pressure to ditch climate-focused initiatives, they are also increasingly battling regulatory pressure to take the risks of climate change into account. The Securities and Exchange Commission, the watchdog federal agency meant to protect U.S. investors, has issued new climate risk disclosure rules for asset managers and is cracking down on firms that are inflating their climate bona fides. The Commission has a separate task force that identifies misconduct related to climate and ESG investments within its Division of Enforcement. Last month, the Commission targeted Goldman Sachs for failing to adequately evaluate ESG factors before including securities in ESG-branded funds. The firm paid $4 million in penalties to settle the case.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Wall Street’s biggest names are backing off their climate commitments on Dec 9, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

California’s two largest cities ban plastic foam

Fri, 12/09/2022 - 03:15

In a major victory against plastic pollution, city council members in Los Angeles and San Diego voted on Tuesday to ban the distribution of expanded polystyrene, the foamy plastic that’s used in disposable coffee cups and takeout food containers.

“Expanded polystyrene has no place in our city’s future,” LA councilmember Mitch O’Farrell told reporters on Tuesday.

Starting next April, large companies in California’s two most populous cities will be prohibited from giving out or selling dishes, cups, and other products made from plastic foam. The bans, which are expected to be signed into law by the mayors of each city, make some exemptions for products like surfboards and coolers that are encased in a “more durable material,”, and LA will give businesses with fewer than 27 employees an extra year to comply with its ordinance. San Diego’s ban grants a one-year extension to businesses that make less than $500,000 annually.

LA and San Diego will now join hundreds of jurisdictions around the country that have moved to phase out plastic foam, including eight U.S. states and other major California cities like San Francisco, San Jose, and Oakland. And the material will soon be restricted across California, thanks to a state law passed earlier this year called the Plastic Pollution Producer Responsibility Act. The legislation stopped short of outright banning polystyrene statewide but will require plastic producers to demonstrate that at least 25 percent of it is actually recycled by 2025 — a “de facto ban,” according to some environmental advocates, since polystyrene isn’t recyclable at virtually any of the state’s material recovery facilities, and less than 1 percent of it is recycled nationwide.

The two cities’ bans were passed after years of lobbying from environmental organizations, which argued that the benefits of expanded polystyrene — mostly its light weight and low price tag — were far outweighed by risks to the environment and public health. Not only does it crumble into fragments of microplastic — tiny plastic shards that are being detected just about everywhere on Earth, including in people’s bloodstreams — expanded polystyrene is made of a building block called styrene, classified as “probably carcinogenic” by the World Health Organization. Research suggests expanded polystyrene containers can leach styrene into people’s food and drinks, and an Ipsos poll released in April found that 71 percent of California voters support policies to limit their use.

Still, restaurant and plastics industry groups fought the legislation in both cities. In San Diego, a polystyrene ban originally approved in 2019 was stalled for nearly four years as opponents sought a comprehensive assessment of the policy’s environmental impacts. The California Restaurant Association — which has about 22,000 members, compared to the 76,200 bars, coffee shops, restaurants, and similar establishments that were operating in the state as of 2018 — argued that replacing polystyrene with heavier products would lead to greater greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, a claim that proved to be technically true, albeit misleading. Christy Leavitt, plastics campaign director for the nonprofit Oceana, said it ignores greenhouse gas emissions from across the rest of polystrene’s life cycle. Like any plastic, polystyrene comes from fossil fuels and causes climate pollution when it’s produced, when it’s shipped, and — because virtually none of it is recycled — when it ultimately winds up in a  landfill, in an incinerator, or as litter in the natural environment.

On the whole, the 224-page environmental assessment requested by industry groups showed that the environmental benefits of phasing out polystyrene were more than enough to justify a slight increase in transportation emissions.

Craig Cadwallader, policy coordinator for the nonprofit Surfrider South Bay and a member of Reusable LA, a coalition of groups that supported the polystyrene ban, said the plastics industry also put out “a lot of misinformation” on the alleged economic toll of moving away from polystyrene. Industry groups’ statements implied that the policy would devastate mom-and-pop shops and restaurants, which are more likely than larger businesses to still be using plastic foam. (Most national and regional chains have dropped polystyrene following pressure from environmental groups.) 

LA council members “didn’t want to be seen as being detrimental to small businesses,” Cadwallader told Grist. But if bans were really as harmful as the industry says, he added, the 158 polystyrene-related ordinances already on the books in cities and counties across California would have “wiped out businesses in a big way” — something that has not happened. He said he’s been unable to find one example of a business that’s “gone under” from costs associated with phasing out plastic foam.

In addition to banning polystyrene, LA also passed additional ordinances on Tuesday expanding its ban on single-use plastic bags at grocery stores to include restaurants, hardware stores, and other retailers, and banning single-use plastics from city events and facilities. San Diego’s ordinance also included language preventing restaurants from giving out single-use cutlery and straws unless customers request them.

The ordinances fit into a broader push to limit single-use plastics statewide, supercharged by legislation that Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law this summer. Considered to be the country’s strongest plastic reduction policy, the Plastic Pollution Producer Responsibility Act will require California to cut single-use plastic packaging and foodware at least 25 percent below 2023 levels over the next 10 years.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline California’s two largest cities ban plastic foam on Dec 9, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Putting promises into practice after COP27

Thu, 12/08/2022 - 07:07

Growing up in Turkey following the country’s 1980 coup d’etat, Yunus Arikan is no stranger to momentous change. As he studied in Ankara in the early 1990’s, Arikan recalls people taking to the streets, protesting over issues like nuclear power and regional gold mines. “It was a moment of ‘we need really transformative solutions,’” Arikan says, a sentiment that he has carried through his diverse environmental engineering career into his role as an advocate at this year’s COP27, the United Nations conference on climate change held in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt.

The world’s population is increasingly concentrated in urban areas, many of which are facing unprecedented threats from natural disasters. Arikan says that makes it more important than ever for climate summits to consider practical solutions on a local level. While international treaties are essential, adaptations will also be required at every level of government, down to city councils. 

“When there’s a flood coming to your city, you don’t call your national minister of environment, you call your mayor,” Arikan says. Many are already seeing climate impacts in their own neighborhoods, which means that’s also where regulatory changes can have the most immediate—and ultimately largest—impacts, he adds. 

International policies concerning the climate crisis can often feel distant and hard to understand, while more visible climate actions at the local level can have a tangible impact in peoples’ lives. Whether it’s seeing your mayor cycling to work rather than driving or adding solar panels to municipal buildings, local action can be inspiring.

Arikan has seen that dynamic play out in communities across Germany, including in his own city of Bonn, where public pressure helped get a climate emergency declaration passed in July of 2019, with support across the political spectrum. These types of local actions serve as an acknowledgment that the climate crisis should have a role in shaping all policies, putting sustainability at the center of development. “That is in fact the easiest path for climate action,” Arikan says, “With one decision, you can influence the future for generations.” 

As the head of global policy and advocacy at ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, Arikan is well-versed in how much power local governments have in shaping climate decisions. Regional economic planning about how technology is used, or which industries produce goods, Arikan says, can help shape “cities that are safe for nature, and safe for livelihoods.” 

Taking this focus on local action to this year’s COP27, Arikan and a group of more than 150 mayors, governors, and climate speakers marched to an event held for high-level diplomatic talks. Walking through the area in business attire with signs saying “Walk the Talk,” this wasn’t a typical climate demonstration. Arikan says that at past meetings, local governments have felt excluded from international dialogues. But “a city in China, a city in Germany, and a city in New York are the same when it comes to climate disasters,” he says—”and the solutions as well.”

Many of the conversations at the conference focused on how the dire consequences of the climate crisis are unduly falling on countries in the Global South, who are less equipped to respond to the effects of natural disasters. Pakistan’s recent extreme flooding offers a poignant example. But even affluent countries can struggle to after extreme events, Arikan says. He points to the 2021 flooding in Germany, and Hurricane Sandy in New York City in the United States, as instances where impacted regions may not have fully recovered without federal aid.

Navigating the politics of the climate crisis is complicated, but COP27 felt different to Arikan, who has participated in environmental conferences since he was a student sitting in the university computer room, trading emails with people at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio. “It was the first time that the Global South was in the driver’s seat,” Arikan says, with rich nations finally agreeing to some financial responsibility for the climate costs to more vulnerable countries. The commitment was an historic step, although follow through is still needed to actually create a functional loss and damage fund. 

That’s not a new problem: Implementing meaningful climate action globally has proven elusive since the groundbreaking Paris Agreement in 2015. Without a way to enforce countries’ climate goals, Arikan says, “COPs are just the tip of the iceberg. The real work happens at home.” The best way to get involved is by engaging with local government from the neighborhood level on up, he adds. 

There is no one-size-fits all solution, which makes bringing climate solutions to every part of society crucial. At the conference in Egypt, ICLEI, UN-Habitat, and the COP presidency sponsored a new program to promote this kind of multi-level government action called Sustainable Urban Resilience for the next Generation Initiative (SURGe).The plan emphasizes sustainable urban development, and planning for climate adaptations from the ground up. “It will not be easy, but it is the only way forward,” Arikan says. 

Reflecting on COP27’s accomplishments, Arikan thinks significant strides were made. But he notes that while 45,000 people participated in the event, in the digital age, “we have to turn every city hall into a COP venue. That is the only way we can bring real life experiences to the diplomatic halls.”

This year’s conference frustrated many scientists and activists by ending without an agreement on a path to phasing out fossil fuels, but Arikan remains hopeful. “People are starting to assess the future of their governments, whether they’re serious about climate or not.” 

On an individual level, “some things are beyond our control,” he says, but that doesn’t mean people can’t make an important difference through their everyday decisions. “Everybody can play a role in climate action,” he says. “It’s a question of choices. How do you want to live?”

“We as citizens have the power.”

ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability is a global network working with more than 2500 local and regional governments committed to sustainable urban development. Active in 125+ countries, we influence sustainability policy and drive local action for low emission, nature-based, equitable, resilient and circular development. 

LEARN MORE

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Putting promises into practice after COP27 on Dec 8, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

African countries are tapping their fossil fuel wealth. Why aren’t they getting rich?

Thu, 12/08/2022 - 03:45

When an American oil company discovered a massive natural gas reserve off the coast of Mozambique in early 2010, the country appeared poised for a brighter future. After more than a decade of relying on foreign aid to recover from a bloody civil war, here was an opportunity to gain financial independence. Government officials celebrated Anadarko Petroleum’s discovery, declaring that revenues from the extracted fuel would help transform Mozambique, one of the world’s poorest countries, into a middle-income nation with robust health care and education. 

But the years that followed brought a series of crushing disappointments. A corruption scandal sunk the country into economic and political turmoil and an insurgency swept through the oil-rich Cabo Delgado province, destroying schools and hospitals and displacing thousands. It all happened before a single ounce of gas was shipped for export. 

Today, Mozambique is still hoping to use its fossil fuel resources to develop its economy, a story that has played out across the continent, often to disastrous effects. From the vast deserts of Algeria to the delicate peatlands of Namibia, hundreds of mostly foreign-owned corporations are exploring new fuel reserves, prompting claims that the continent will become oil’s “final frontier.” But if the world is to limit global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, no new oil and gas infrastructure can be developed, according to the International Energy Agency. Even as oil giants like Shell and TotalEnergies set up shop in Namibia and Angola, a wealth of recent research has demonstrated that Africa also has immense, largely untapped potential for renewable energy. Despite pleas from environmental advocates across the continent to pursue this path instead, governments have held tight to the idea that tapping fossil reserves is essential for expanding their economies, reducing poverty, and providing power to millions of Africans. 

“Africa wants to send a message that we are going to develop all of our energy resources for the benefit of our people because our issue is energy poverty,” said Maggy Shino, Namibia’s petroleum commissioner, in an interview with Reuters at the United Nations Climate Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, last month.

With 89 percent of the liquified natural gas from the new infrastructure slated for export to Europe, some advocates have questioned how far these projects will actually go toward increasing electricity access for ordinary Africans. More troublingly, a growing body of research suggests that rather than serving as a boon for development, major fuel discoveries tend to spawn corruption and economic instability in countries that lack strong financial institutions and legal systems. This, experts told Grist, is what happened in Mozambique, where the promise of economic growth led to rapid increases in borrowing and sparked violence over access to resources before they ever left the ground. 

Lars Burr, a professor of political economy at Roskilde University in Denmark, said that Africa’s colonial history and its relatively small contribution to climate change make drilling for fossil fuels on the continent a question of fairness. “There’s an environmental justice case for African governments being able to consume certain amounts of coal, gas, and oil in order to develop their countries. That’s one side of it.” The other side, he said, is how much these countries are really getting from developing their oil and gas industries. “That’s a difficult one, because the track records are poor.”

Men walk in an oil slick covering a creek near Bodo City in the oil-rich Niger Delta region of Nigeria. AP Photo/Sunday Alamba

For decades, academics have been studying the “resource curse,” a phenomenon in which countries endowed with abundant natural resources wind up with worse social and economic outcomes after they cash in. This “paradox of plenty” has been seen across Africa, particularly in the continent’s two largest oil-producing states. In the early 2000s, billions of dollars in revenue from deepwater exploration off the coast of Angola went missing after government elites siphoned the funds away from a population that lacked basic public services after decades of civil war. In Nigeria, weak regulations have enabled a quantity of oil equivalent to 50 Exxon Valdez disasters to spill into farms, forests, and rivers, devastating the environment and nearby towns.

What can explain the apparent paradox, this riches-to-rags story? Scholars have pointed out that governments hungry to cash in on major fuel discoveries tend to pull resources away from other vital sectors of the economy such as agriculture, thereby constricting their development. Another explanation points to weak financial institutions, regulatory agencies, and legal systems that fail to stave off corruption and protect against environmental abuses. While these patterns have been observed in many oil-rich nations across Africa and the world, experts emphasized that political conditions, not wealth of natural resources, are what determine whether discoveries will cause more harm than good.

“Resources by their nature are not a curse,” said Erik Katovich, a postdoctoral scholar at the Institute of Economics and Econometrics at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. However, “if a country already deals with conflict or corruption or instability, throwing millions of dollars in oil revenues into the mix is only going to exacerbate any sort of institutional weaknesses that you already have.”

More recent research suggests that these effects are not only reserved for the period after governments receive windfalls from fossil fuels. In what’s called the “presource curse,” the anticipation of oil and gas revenues may engender corruption and lead governments to prematurely restructure their economies and pile on debt. 

After Anadarko made its first natural gas discovery in the deep waters of Mozambique’s Rovuma Basin in 2010, billions of investment dollars poured into the country’s Cabo Delgado province, a remote, forested region near Mozambique’s northern border with Tanzania. As oil giants such as ExxonMobil and France’s TotalEnergies rushed to find and develop new fuel reserves, government officials in the capital Maputo took out $2 billion in secret loans to start companies that would provide shipyard services and security for these oil and gas companies. After news of the scandal broke in 2016, the International Monetary Fund suspended financial assistance to Mozambique, sparking an economic crisis that saw the national currency lose a third of its value. The following year, an outbreak of violence in the oil-producing province was quickly linked to the government’s lucrative deals with foreign firms.

The turmoil following Anadarko’s discovery was “a matter of governance,” said José Macuane, a professor of political science at the University Eduardo Mondlane in Maputo. “You have institutions that are not able to address aspirations for development.”

A soldier and a policeman guard the Total Mozambique LGN Project in the Cabo Delgado province in September. CAMILLE LAFFONT/AFP via Getty Images

Despite authoring a paper that explores the “presource curse” in Mozambique, Macuane isn’t quick to discount the potential benefits of fossil fuel extraction in the country’s north, where the government started exporting natural gas from last month. Selling this gas, he reasoned, could help Mozambique eventually shift to renewable energy and catch up with the rest of the world without relying on foreign aid. (Roughly 40 percent of the population has access to electricity. Although officials have promoted solar power in rural areas, it accounts for less than 1 percent of the country’s total energy supply.) 

Such a prospect, he admitted, is challenging given the state of the country’s government, which is still reeling from violence in the north and the decade-old corruption scandal that tanked the economy. 

Nonetheless, Macuane expressed frustration with climate activists, particularly those from the West, who he characterized as pushing for a moratorium on fossil fuel extraction in Africa without sufficiently reckoning with the economic reality that many developing nations face. 

“Just because we had a case of presource curse, I don’t think we should abandon our natural resources,” he said. “For us to catch up to technology, human capital, and to make a transition, we need resources. Which will be the country to fund it?”

Countless experts have warned about the perils of relying on fossil fuel resources given their unpredictability in global markets. Katovich said that petrostates, nations that depend on fossil fuel exports, risk financial trouble when events such as the coronavirus pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine roil oil and gas markets.

“If your economy is too dependent on natural resources, you’re exposed to a lot of volatility which is out of your control, driven by world events beyond your borders,” he said. Such price swings make it hard for governments to carry out long-term social welfare plans like funding schools and building new electrical grids — even if they wanted to.

In a world that is starting to look beyond fossil fuels, this uncertainty around their future value is the biggest challenge facing petrostates. The falling cost of developing renewables has challenged the notion that natural gas could be used as a “transition fuel” in coal-reliant countries like India and Germany. A study published in May found that it is now more economical for countries to switch straight from coal to renewables instead of importing gas from abroad. Last year, the Carbon Tracker Initiative, a London-based think tank, reported that fossil fuel-producing countries could see their oil and gas revenues tank by more than 50 percent over the next two decades. 

That’s why African climate activists are calling on their governments to stop investing billions in infrastructure that might not serve them several decades from now. But at the annual United Nations climate conference in Egypt last month, those demands largely fell on deaf ears, said Dean Bhebhe, a South Africa-based climate activist with the Don’t Gas Africa campaign. 

“We got to a point where climate activists were labeled as anti-development,” Bhebhe told Grist. “Our argument was essentially that Africa has every right to develop, but because of the history of ‘extractivism’ of coal and oil, surely fossil fuel production does not provide the answer to improved socio-economic [conditions] across Africa. Development needs to center human rights.”

Demonstrators participate in a Don’t Gas Africa protest at COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. AP Photo/Peter Dejong

Campaigners with climate justice organizations like Don’t Gas Africa and Power Shift Africa point out that many African countries could be rich with renewable power. The IEA estimates that Africa holds 60 percent of the world’s solar power potential but only 1 percent of its generation capacity. A separate analysis from the International Finance Group found that much of the continent’s wind is faster than 8.5 meters per second, making it ideal for wind farms. The report also identified significant wind capacity in Mozambique, Nigeria, and other countries. While these forms of alternative energy are cheaper to develop than liquid natural gas pipelines and offshore oil rigs, they still require money that many developing countries don’t have. 

The outcome of last month’s U.N. climate summit could help address that. In a historic agreement that has been hailed as a major win for the global climate justice movement, wealthy nations agreed to create a loss and damage fund that will provide financial support to countries that have historically contributed little to climate change but suffer deep economic losses as a result of it. In addition to offering resources for disaster recovery in places like Pakistan, where historic floods recently submerged a third of the country, the fund is meant to help developing nations construct green infrastructure that they would otherwise be unable to afford. 

Bhebhe said the fund is a step in the right direction, but added that until certain details are ironed out, including which countries will receive financing and how it will be distributed, it can only be considered a win on paper. Green financing without also abandoning fossil fuel extraction on public lands is “like being in a bathroom with a tub filling up with water and instead of turning off the tap, you’re like ‘We’ll buy more mops!’”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline African countries are tapping their fossil fuel wealth. Why aren’t they getting rich? on Dec 8, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

How Indigenous people are fighting to stop ‘the biggest land grab in history’

Wed, 12/07/2022 - 11:00

Indigenous leaders from around the world are calling for a bigger role in negotiations at the United Nations’ Biodiversity Conference which convenes today in Montreal. Known as COP15, delegates from nearly 200 countries are expected to finalize the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, a set of international goals and standards for conservation efforts over the next decade.

At the summit, one of the biggest topics of discussion will be the 30X30 protected areas plan, an international plan to conserve 30% of the world’s land and water by 2030. “We are waging war on nature,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Tuesday. “This Conference is our chance to stop this orgy of destruction.”

In the run up to COP15, the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity (IIFB), a caucus of Indigenous representatives and activists established in 1996 to advocate for Indigenous peoples at international meetings, has been advocating to include language that protects Indigenous rights in the final agreement. “The global biodiversity framework to save nature must respect, promote and support the rights of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities if it stands any chance of succeeding,” the IIFB said in a statement

However, amid a push to complete negotiations by deadline, IIFB representatives say they are concerned that their priorities may not be fully heard or included; During COP15, delegates have limited time to negotiate and agree on biodiversity targets and milestones. If an agreement isn’t reached during that time, then final text is moved up a level to a round that may not include Indigenous representatives.

“As the negotiation reaches its conclusion, the space for Indigenous Peoples becomes smaller and smaller,” Jennifer Corpuz, who is Kankanaey Igorot from the Northern Philippines and one of the lead negotiators of the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity, said. “If we’re not there, it’s very difficult for us to defend our position.”

Advocates are most concerned with 30X30 and its impacts on Indigenous peoples, rights and lands. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Indigenous Batwa were evicted, killed and group raped during a violent eviction campaign from Kahuzi-Biega National Park under the pretense of protecting the UNESCO World Heritage Site from poachers and deforestation. In Tanzania, nearly 150,000 Indigenous Maasai could be evicted from their homes to create game reserves and protected areas. In Nepal, Indigenous Tharu and others were evicted from their lands to create Chitwan National Park and Bardiya National Park, both of which have been supported by international conservation organizations like the World Wildlife Fund.

“If Indigenous Peoples do not maintain or secure ownership of our land nor have equal authority in the decision-making process, the UN’s 30×30 policy may be the biggest land grab in history and further threaten the physical and cultural survival of Indigenous Peoples worldwide,” Indigenous leaders wrote in a letter to Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, Executive Secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, and other COP15 participants. 

The current biodiversity framework text recognizes Indigenous rights, but Corpuz says without Indigenous advocates attached to the draft as it moves through the system, decision makers may make changes that facilitate ongoing violations of Indigenous peoples rights. “Those who are leading the crafting of policy and those who are funding the creation of protected areas, they’re just so stuck in the idea that protected areas are the end all and be all,” Corpuz said. “But that’s not what the science is saying.”

Multiple reports and studies have shown that defending Indigenous rights also protects the environment. Indigenous land contains 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity and the world’s healthiest and most resilient forests are on protected Indigenous territory. “It is undisputed that Indigenous-led conservation solutions have and will continue to deliver better results than approaches that disregard our land and collective rights. Rhetoric is not enough. Conservation must center on and include Indigenous Peoples in order to succeed,” said Amnesty International, Survival International, Minority Rights Group, and Rainforest Foundation UK in a joint statement that calls on states to “urgently reconsider” the 30X30 plan ahead of COP15.

“A human rights-based approach is crucial to a successful Global Biodiversity Framework,” said Lucy Mulenkei, Maasai and co-chair of the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity. “Such an approach would mean that biodiversity policies, governance and management do not violate human rights, and those implementing such policies should actively seek ways to support and promote human rights in their design and implementation.”

In Canada, Indigenous Protected and Conservation Areas (IPCAs) offer a successful model of Indigenous-led conservation. First Nations are currently in the process of creating IPCAs that would total nearly 200,000 square miles—larger than the entire state of California. These protected areas help protect Canada’s rich biodiversity as well as Indigenous culture and autonomy. They also provide economic benefits to Indigenous communities, especially through the Guardians program, which trains Indigenous people to manage protected areas. 

Valérie Courtois, director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative and member of the Innu community of Mashteuiatsh, hopes to use COP15 as an opportunity to show that Indigenous peoples can and should lead conservation efforts. “We’re hoping that by showing that it’s possible here in Canada, that it may be possible in other parts of the world to do that as well,” she said. 

In 2010, at COP10 in Nagoya, Japan, governments agreed on a set of biodiversity targets, including plans for sustainable consumption and reducing natural habitat loss. According to the Convention on Biological Diversity, none of those targets have been fully met. However, the world is nearly halfway to the goal of 30 percent conservation.

“Only by recognizing the rights, knowledge, innovations, and values of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities will we be able to push forward the global agenda to sustainably use and conserve biodiversity,” said Lakpa Nuri Sherpa, one of the Co-Chairs of the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline How Indigenous people are fighting to stop ‘the biggest land grab in history’ on Dec 7, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Could your next car be an e-bike?

Wed, 12/07/2022 - 03:45

The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Electric bike sales are booming. In the United States, retailers more than doubled their sales in 2020 and demand has only increased. Globally, we’re expected to reach 40 million e-bikes sold in the year 2023. It’s easy to see why. On the spectrum of transportation options, e-bikes have some clear benefits: They use a great deal less energy (and therefore cost less) than a personal car. They save a lot of effort (and are therefore more convenient) than a regular bike. And depending on your route, they can even be the fastest way to arrive at your destination. 

It’s easy to find testimonials from people on the internet who have swapped a car for an electric bicycle. In fact, we produced a video about this very topic with Grist reporter Eve Andrews a few years ago. These anecdotes often come from people living in dense cities, where trip distances tend to be shorter. But what about folks who live in suburban or rural towns — are e-bikes still a good deal? 

As part of our video series Crunch the Numbers, we decided to look into how much carbon and cash the average American household could save if they swapped out their vehicle for an e-bike.

Let’s crunch the numbers!

Ok, so if we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna need a really good data set. Fortunately, every few years, the good folks at the U.S. Department of Transportation put out a report that details the nation’s driving habits. So, based on those numbers, let’s take a hypothetical:

The average American household includes 2.5 people and 2 vehicles. Let’s consider a hypothetical family that has matching RAV4s (the most popular non-truck sold in the U.S.!) and lives in Florida (a place where the cost of owning a car is close to the national average). But oh no! Due to a paranormal-induced accident, one RAV4 gets totaled. So this average American family is now faced with a decision: Do they replace their RAV4 with another car, or an e-bike that’s great at hauling cargo?

Let’s look at the first contender, a used 2021 Toyota Camry. According to the Department of Transportation, the average American household drives 17,815 miles a year. In a two-car household, let’s make it simple and say the new Camry will drive half (8907.5 miles), and the still-functioning RAV4 will drive the other half.

(Editor’s note: If you’d like to follow the number-crunching in our Google Spreadsheet, follow the link here.)

If we plug these two cars into this online tool from AAA, we can calculate our Florida family’s approximate cost of car ownership over five years. This includes fuel, maintenance, depreciation – even financing for buying the Camry! When you add all that up… the grand total for five years of ownership comes to $86,617.64.

Now let’s see how the e-bike stacks up. For the purposes of this video, I chose the Blix Packa Genie e-bike because it purports to be “a natural car replacement.” 

But how many driving trips could an e-bike actually replace? In the U.S., nearly 60 percent of trips are five miles or less. In theory, all these trips could be replaced with an e-bike. That would include things like trips to the grocery store (median distance 0.9 miles) or school (median distance 2.7 miles). If all of these short-distance driving trips were replaced, we calculated that the e-bike would account for 2,575 miles of the household’s 17,815 mile total. 

The family’s remaining RAV4 would need to compensate for longer trips the new e-bike can’t make. By plugging the RAV4’s additional usage into the same cost estimation tool from AAA we determined the family’s one car would add up to: $53,097.35 total over five years. For the e-bike, there’s the initial cost of $2,000 plus all the gear the family will need, annual charging costs, and parts and maintenance. That brings the five-year cost for the e-bike to around $4,700. 

The total cost of the e-bike and car option? An estimated $57,861.41. That’s nearly $29,000 cheaper than the car-only version over those five years!

OK, but what about the carbon footprint of each option? For the Camry and RAV4 combo, there’s a great tool from MIT that breaks down CO2 costs per mile in three categories: fuel use, fuel production, and vehicle production. So, taking our average American family with their two cars, driving an average 17,185 miles per year, we get 36.3 metric tons of CO2 emissions over a five-year period. If we do the same calculation with the e-bike and RAV4 option, we get a grand total of 30.5 metric tons of CO2 — That’s 5.8 metric tons of CO2 less than the car-only household.

So if you’re anything like the average American household, you’d save lots of cash and CO2 by swapping even just one of your cars for an e-bike. But that’s admittedly a pretty big “if.” Most people are not the average American household. Factors such as where you live and who you live with can greatly affect how safe it is to bike and how much you need to drive in the first place. 

With that in mind, here’s a link to our Google Spreadsheet calculations, so you can copy the doc, tweak the assumptions, and better understand the data.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Could your next car be an e-bike? on Dec 7, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

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