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Updated: 3 days 16 hours ago

The myth of ‘home-compostable’ plastics

Mon, 11/07/2022 - 03:15

As single-use plastics fall further out of favor among environmentally-conscious consumers and governments, many companies are turning to newer materials that they say will break down in people’s backyard composting bins. But new research reveals that most of these so-called “home-compostable” plastics don’t live up to their labels.

Sixty percent of plastics that are certified for home composting don’t fully disintegrate, according to a study published last week in the journal Frontiers in Sustainability. The research urged consumers to exercise caution when evaluating companies’ claims, suggesting they would be better off sending items to an industrial processing facility.

“[H]ome composting is not at present a viable, effective, or environmentally beneficial waste processing method for compostable or biodegradable plastics in the U.K.,” the authors wrote.

The research paper was the result of a citizen science project called “The Big Compost Experiment,” which — in addition to evaluating the effectiveness of home composting plastics — asked nearly 10,000 people from across the United Kingdom about their knowledge of and willingness to try the practice. Some 900 of these participants went on to complete a home composting experiment, reporting back to the study authors at University College London over a two-year period.

People are largely enthusiastic about buying compostable and biodegradable plastics, the study found, although there is much confusion over these products’ labeling. Out of a random sample of 50 items that participants put in their composting bins, nearly half showed no identifiable composting label and another 14 percent said they were only compostable in a specialized industrial facility.

The rest of the items that were labeled as home-compostable — the bags, cutlery, food packaging, and other products branded by certification bodies like TUV Austria and European Bioplastics — did not break down fully. Out of a sample containing more than 1,300 pieces of plastic, about 60 percent featuring these certifications didn’t disintegrate at all, remained “largely intact,” or simply broke into easily visible pieces.

A photo submitted by one of the study’s citizen scientists shows a plastic bag failing to disintegrate. Citizen scientist image from

”We have photos that people have submitted after 12 months where you can still read the home compost certification label on it, which is ironic,” Danielle Purkiss, a research manager at University College London and a coauthor of the study, told ABC News.

Why this failure to break down? Although the authors acknowledged a wide range of conditions that can affect composting — from different temperatures and pH levels to micro bacterial diversity — they said the main problem was with the plastics themselves.

“It pains me to say this because I want non-plastic alternatives to work,” Judith Enck, a former regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and founder of the advocacy group Beyond Plastics, told CNN. “But there really is no such thing as biodegradable plastics, and compostable packaging really only gets composted at high-temperature composting facilities.”

It’s not the first time compostability claims have come into question. In 2019, other researchers at the University of Plymouth in the U.K. found that a number of ostensibly compostable and biodegradable shopping bags failed to break down fully after three years in the natural environment. In the absence of collection systems to bring compost-friendly materials to a high-temperature industrial facility, these products have been found to more likely be landfilled or incinerated alongside conventional plastics. This creates more pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

With these concerns in mind, Mark Miodownik, a professor of materials and society at University College London and an author of the study, said there’s a simpler, easier alternative to compostable plastics: Buy less plastic and ditch single-use materials altogether — whether home-compostable or not. “Reduce and reuse are often big money savers for everyone, and yet it seems the strategy that is least intuitive to people,” he told the Guardian.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The myth of ‘home-compostable’ plastics on Nov 7, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

These 3 governor’s races could determine whether the Midwest reaches its climate goals

Fri, 11/04/2022 - 03:45

Some Midwest states want to decarbonize by 2050. This year’s midterm elections could throw a wrench into these goals. 

Next week, voters in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin will go to the polls and cast their vote for governor. All three states have incumbent Democratic governors who have enacted clean energy plans for the state within the last three years. They are all facing Republican challengers who have ties to the fossil fuel industry or who have campaigned on extending the life of polluting infrastructure. 

Experts say that if Republicans win these races, they have the potential to slow down progress toward decarbonization or even dismantle the states’ climate plans altogether.

Wisconsin, a noted swing state in presidential elections, has plans for all electricity consumed in the state to be 100 percent carbon-free by 2050 in accordance with an executive order Democratic Governor Tony Evers signed in 2019. The state’s gubernatorial race has been extremely tight between incumbent Evers and Republican challenger Tim Michels, CEO of one of the largest infrastructure and construction contracting companies in the nation.

Michels, who did not respond to repeated requests for comment, has strong ties to the oil and gas industry. His company has worked on the Line 5 pipeline, Dakota Access pipeline, and the Keystone XL pipeline, and while Michels claims he will divest from the company if elected, that process is a difficult task.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who signed an executive order in 2020 to make the state’s entire economy carbon-neutral by 2050, is being challenged by Trump-endorsed Republican candidate Tudor Dixon, who has professional experience in the media and steel industries. Energy has been a central topic in the race. Whitmer’s order to shut down the Line 5 pipeline — a petroleum pipeline that stretches across Upper Michigan and Wisconsin, including Great Lakes waters — has been a frequent talking point for Dixon, whose campaign did not respond to written questions.

The challenger has campaigned on keeping Line 5 open and enacting safeguards preventing future interference with its operations. Earlier this year, Dixon told a local publication that the Line 5 pipeline is “too important to our economy for liberal radicals like Gretchen Whitmer to sabotage it. When I defeat her, Line 5 will be safe from her attacks.”

Minnesota already had a climate plan before Democratic incumbent Governor Tim Walz took office, thanks to a 2007 law that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the state 30 percent by 2025 and 80 percent by 2050. But since the state was not on track to achieve those goals, Walz issued an executive order in 2019 to create a new climate change subcabinet to establish new strategies to slash emissions. Walz’s administration also adopted regulations to encourage more electric vehicle sales in the state starting in 2024, modeled after California’s “clean cars” rule.

Michigan’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer (right), is being challenged by Republican Tudor Dixon (left) this Election Day, with Whitmer’s order to shut down the Line 5 pipeline a frequent talking point on the campaign trail. Nic Antaya / Getty Images; Matthew Hatcher / Getty Images

That rule has been met with strong opposition from both the Minnesota Auto Dealers Association and Walz’s midterm opponent, Scott Jensen. The Republican candidate vehemently opposes Minnesota’s clean car rules and has said he will repeal the regulation if elected. Jensen, whose campaign declined to make the candidate available for an interview, has also advocated for coal-fired power plants that are scheduled to close to remain open, including a facility that’s already being converted into a solar project

Minnesota’s Walz has enjoyed a comfortable lead in the polls, but Michigan’s race has tightened recently, while Evers and Michels have been neck and neck in Wisconsin for weeks. Meanwhile, climate policy experts say that the outcome of this year’s governor’s races will chart the course for these states for years to come. 

“These Midwest governors, and the legislatures that are up for reelection in November, are presiding over one of the most pivotal periods of opportunity for action on climate,” Samantha Williams, a senior policy advisor to the NRDC Action Fund and an expert in Midwest climate policy, told Grist.

Williams said that states have an incredible opportunity to clean up their energy mix and create a greener economy, but the clock is ticking. Governors elected this year will be sworn into office in 2023 and hold a four-year term till 2027. That leaves a little over two decades until the 2050 deadline that Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin have set for fully achieving their clean energy plans. 

If elected, Republican Scott Jensen (left) has vowed to repeal Minnesota’s “clean cars” rule, a regulation championed by incumbent Democratic Governor Tim Walz (right) to help achieve the state’s clean energy goals. Ben Mulholland / Gray Television via AP, Pool; Stephen Maturen / Getty Images

Williams said that governors can exert influence over a state climate action via planning, executive action, and departmental appointments. For instance, governors appoint officials to public service commissions, influential state agencies that regulate energy generation and consumption. Jensen, the challenger in Minnesota’s governor’s race, has said he plans to appoint experts in “base load power” — an industry-friendly euphemism for coal power — to the state Public Utilities Commission and the Minnesota Department of Commerce.

Public service commissions “have a pretty significant amount of control over whether the state will move to clean power fast enough and what that future power generation is going to look like,” Williams said. 

The Midwest has already seen a regional shift towards clean energy. Clean energy companies employed more than 714,000 residents of the 12 Midwestern states at the end of last year, according to a report by Clean Jobs Midwest

“There are some states that are going faster than others, and you see that in the Midwest as a microcosm,” Williams said. 

This slow growth is often exacerbated by a political disconnect between the governor’s office and the state legislature. The legislatures in Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin are currently either controlled by Republicans or split between Democratic and Republican control. Divided legislatures can make it difficult to pass climate laws, forcing climate-focused governors to resort to executive orders.

In Wisconsin and Michigan, all of the states’ clean energy goals have been established by executive order. But executive orders are easier for successive administrations to reverse than legislation like Minnesota’s 2007 climate law, or the ambitious climate law that Illinois’ governor signed last year. 

Tim Michels (left) is a Trump-backed Republican candidate for Wisconsin governor with deep ties to the fossil fuel industry. He’s challenging incumbent Governor Tony Evers (right). Scott Olson / Getty Images; Scott Olson / Getty Images

Whether Republican governors roll back climate-related executive orders or just undermine them with hostile appointments, the upshot is the same, according to Kerry Schumann, executive director of the Wisconsin chapter of the League of Conservation Voters: “We don’t make the investments we need to make” in clean energy.

Schumann said that another reason this year’s Midwestern governor’s races are so crucial is that governors will have a say in how funding from the Inflation Reduction Act, the federal climate law passed in August, gets distributed. The law allocates money for states to slash pollution, cut greenhouse gas emissions, train clean energy workers, and more.

“If the state of Wisconsin and other local governments aren’t very conscientious and deliberate about taking advantage of that money, we just completely missed this opportunity to invest in clean energy and to reduce pollution,” Schumann said.

Governors also have the power to work to promote clean energy on a regional level, Schumann pointed out. Recently, a coalition of Midwest governors announced plans to establish clean hydrogen infrastructure in the region and create a network of electric vehicle charging stations across five states. Schumann said she’s concerned that Wisconsin and other Midwest states would not continue to work together on these plans if Republicans take office next year. 

David Pelikan, a policy associate for nonpartisan political organization Climate Vote Minnesota, agreed that the consequences of electing a Republican governor could reverberate throughout the region. “We see Minnesota as a regional leader on clean energy issues, and I think losing that leadership role is pretty devastating for climate progress across the upper Midwest,” Pelikan said. 

This story has been updated to clarify Samantha Williams’ job title.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline These 3 governor’s races could determine whether the Midwest reaches its climate goals on Nov 4, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Ron DeSantis avoids saying ‘climate change.’ Incarcerated Floridians are living it.

Fri, 11/04/2022 - 03:30

Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor who hopes to coast to reelection on Tuesday, has been touted as the future of the Republican Party. This is not only because of his hardline stances on immigration and COVID restrictions, which have made him the most obvious potential challenger to Donald Trump for the next GOP presidential nomination, but also because of his proactive approach to climate change.

DeSantis’ distinctly conservative approach to climate policy prioritizes adaptation measures like sea walls and big-ticket infrastructure projects over reducing the carbon emissions that cause global warming in the first place. His Resilient Florida program is distributing hundreds of millions of dollars in adaptation funds to Florida communities threatened by severe weather and flooding, all while studiously avoiding the term “climate change.”

There is one constituency, however, that the presidential hopeful has ignored entirely when it comes to preparing for climate change: the more than 80,000 Floridians who are incarcerated in state prisons.

Even as neighboring Republican-led states have taken steps to reform or modernize their prison systems — steps as basic as installing air conditioning — Florida remains distinct among its peers for its harsh sentencing laws and lack of measures protecting the incarcerated from extreme heat. In fact, public records obtained by Grist suggest that Florida lacks any comprehensive policy at all to safeguard the health of people locked in prisons without air conditioning, who are disproportionately Black and increasingly elderly. These vulnerabilities are compounded by the difficulty of staffing these sweltering facilities: About a quarter of Florida Department of Corrections staff positions are vacant, following years of budget cuts.

Around the time DeSantis was signing off on more than $1 million to fund plane flights delivering asylum seekers to the home states of Democratic party leaders, a prison crisis in his own state was boiling over. In September, DeSantis called on the National Guard to send personnel to nine prisons in an attempt to staunch “severe staffing shortages at certain institutions that, if not addressed immediately, could jeopardize public peace and domestic security.”

Although DeSantis approved funding to increase corrections officers’ entry-level salaries from $33,500 to $41,600 earlier this year, he declined to support recent bills aimed at underlying problems in the prison system. State legislators, including some reform-minded Republicans, introduced several measures intended to reduce sentences and bring down prison populations, but all major reform proposals failed. Both Republican-led branches of the legislature did, however, pass $840 million in funding for a new, 4,500-bed air-conditioned mega-prison and prison hospital — a solution that many reform advocates saw as a poor substitute for imprisoning fewer people in the first place. DeSantis vetoed even that.

Less than a quarter of Florida state prison housing units — 157 out of 639 dormitories — have air conditioning, according to Department of Corrections Deputy Communications Director Molly Best. At least 53 of Florida’s 73 state prisons have no air-conditioned housing at all.*

Air conditioning can mean the difference between life and death in prison, according to a new study published on Wednesday in the journal JAMA Network Open. Researchers examined increases in prisoner mortality rates on days of extreme heat in Texas. They found that heat was associated with an average of 14 deaths per year in the state’s unairconditioned prisons between 2001 and 2019. In prisons with air conditioning, there was no correlation between hot days and death. No similar study has been conducted in Florida.

 “Governor DeSantis sails in on this tough-on-crime stance, and that’s all well and good, but they put people in these horrible conditions and some of them don’t get out,” said Gail Snyder, whose brother is serving a 36-month sentence for breaking his probation and stealing groceries from the self-checkout register at a Walmart. He is 64 and diabetic, a condition associated with heat sensitivity, and he passed out repeatedly from the heat this summer. Snyder told Grist that she spent months wondering, “Is my brother going to end up with basically a life sentence for $178 at Walmart?”

Florida’s prison woes have been exacerbated by its sentencing laws. The state abolished parole in 1983 and later passed a law that encouraged prosecutors to seek maximum sentences for formerly incarcerated people who commit a new felony within three years of their release. Such laws mean that Florida has significantly more people serving life sentences without parole than any other state. It is also the state with the highest proportion of so-called “elderly prisoners” over age 50, who are particularly vulnerable to heat.

Without a major intervention, Florida’s prison population is poised to become markedly more vulnerable in the years ahead. The proportion of Florida prisoners over age 50 is expected to grow from 28 to 34 percent by 2026. This rapid aging is occurring as climate change is making extreme heat more frequent and severe. By mid-century, it’s likely that every state prison in Florida will be in a county with over 20 days annually where the heat index rises above 105 degrees Fahrenheit, according to a Grist analysis of data from the Union of Concerned Scientists. By the end of the century, a quarter of Florida prisons will likely see over 50 days annually above 105 degrees, according to an investigation by The Intercept.

Other states have faced multimillion-dollar lawsuits arguing that a lack of climate control in hot prisons constitutes a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act or the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. Such suits forced Texas to establish an elaborate system to monitor heat in unairconditioned prisons and provide air-conditioned housing to people who are heat-sensitive. Although some researchers have found these policies insufficient, they are more thorough than anything Florida is doing.

The Florida Department of Corrections appears to have few protocols in place to protect prisoners with health conditions that make them vulnerable to heat. In response to a public records request for any and all Florida Department of Corrections heat policies, the agency shared only facility maintenance plans and first aid information, including a PowerPoint presentation that dedicates as much space to snake bites as heat. One slide describes the difference between heat exhaustion and heat stroke, and another provides instructions for responding to heat-related emergencies. A separate fact sheet defines types of heat stress and how to treat them.

The agency also shared a consent form for antipsychotic medication, which notes, “Avoid too much exercise, extreme heat, or other activities that are likely to dehydrate you unless you are able to get enough water.”

Asked how a patient taking such medications would avoid heat while incarcerated, spokesperson Best said in an email that each new prisoner takes an intake exam when they are first incarcerated and is continuously monitored for medical needs.

“The Florida Department of Corrections has air-conditioned housing units which serve the most vulnerable inmate populations such as the infirmed, mentally ill, pregnant and geriatric,” she stated, adding that dorms without air conditioning do have fans or exhaust systems as well as refrigerated water fountains. “General population inmates have access to air-conditioning in buildings designated for chapel, programs, classification, medical and administration.”

“Ensuring inmates incarcerated in Florida’s prisons receive medical and behavioral treatment is one of [the Florida Department of Corrections’] core constitutional responsibilities,” Best said.

Nevertheless, Florida does not appear to be tracking extreme heat and its impact on prisoners. Asked for recent temperature records, Best replied, “The department does not keep any type of log for ambient internal or external air temperatures at any of the Florida correctional institutions.” As for how many people have died of heat-related illnesses over the past decade, Best demurred, stating that only the medical examiner could share information about causes of death. “[The department] does not track heat related illnesses,” she said.

The heat issue is one that the loved ones of incarcerated people have increasingly organized around, working with prisoner advocacy groups like Florida Cares. The organization periodically holds Beat the Heat Challenges, where policymakers are asked to spend three minutes sitting inside a replica of a prison cell without air conditioning. They say the combination of harsh sentencing and extreme heat is causing illness and death that could easily be prevented.  

When Donna Muller lost her brother to suicide in August 2021, while he was incarcerated, her thoughts turned quickly to the heat. Two weeks before he died, 48-year-old John Crimins had sent his sister an email from the Lake Correctional Institution, a mostly unairconditioned prison located in a county that averages 123 days annually where the heat index surpasses 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Hey sis sorry I haven’t been much on communication recently. This time of year is always rough,” he wrote. “The heat is just oppressive to the point of despair. Crazy thoughts you know.” By late afternoon on the day Crimins died, the heat index outside hit 105 degrees.

Muller knows it would be an oversimplification to claim heat was all that led to her brother’s death. Crimins, a father of three, was serving a life sentence on an attempted murder charge for an incident he described as self-defense, and he had struggled on and off with depression throughout his life. However, she feels strongly that the heat made the situation less tolerable. (Spokesperson Best said that privacy laws prevent the Florida Department of Corrections from commenting on any individual’s physical or mental health.)

“The sentence did not even come close to fitting the crime,” Muller said. “Families are just holding their breath, waiting for legislation in the hopes that their loved ones will get out.”

* Grist determined the number of detention facilities with no air conditioning by comparing an online directory of Florida Department of Corrections “major institutions” with a list of air conditioned facilities provided by Deputy Communications Director Molly Best. Grist’s estimate counts prison annexes and affiliated units (such as Apalachee Correctional Institution, East) as individual prisons. Grist’s estimate does not include re-entry centers, work camps, or community release centers. The full list of facilities with air conditioning can be found here.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Ron DeSantis avoids saying ‘climate change.’ Incarcerated Floridians are living it. on Nov 4, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

The plastics industry says its bags are recyclable. California’s attorney general wants proof.

Fri, 11/04/2022 - 03:15

In California, prosecutors are launching a new front in the fight against deceptive recycling claims.

The Golden State’s Department of Justice announced Wednesday that it had sent letters to seven top plastic bag manufacturers asking them to substantiate claims that their bags are recyclable. They have two weeks to respond or could face a legal injunction and fines.

“Let’s see the evidence,” Attorney General Rob Bonta said at a press conference in San Francisco. The probe builds on an ongoing investigation into the fossil fuel and petrochemical industry, which his office says has orchestrated a decades-long “deception campaign” to convince the public that plastics are recyclable.

Single-use, non-recyclable plastic bags have been banned in California since 2016, when Senate Bill 270 went into effect statewide as part of an effort to curb growing plastic pollution. The law allows paper or reusable plastic bags, with the stipulation that reusable plastic bags be able to withstand at least 125 uses and be recyclable in the state. The attorney general’s office is now concerned that plastic bag manufacturers are flouting this law by continuing to produce and sell “reusable” plastic bags that are falsely marketed as recyclable.

“Most Californians are under the impression that plastic bags are recyclable,” Bonta said in a statement, attributing this perception to the “chasing arrows” recycling symbol that’s featured on “most every bag we get from the store.” (A separate California law will ban these symbols on non-recyclable materials starting in 2024.) However, Bonta added, “there’s a good chance that most, if not all, these bags are not actually recyclable in California.”

This is because California has some of the country’s most rigorous regulations around the chasing arrows and the term “recyclable.” Under state law, companies can only claim their products are recyclable if they’re collected by recycling programs that serve at least 60 percent of the state’s population, then sorted and ultimately turned into new products. Environmental advocates say plastic bags fail on all three fronts.

“Bags aren’t being recycled anywhere,” said Jan Dell, an independent chemical engineer and founder of the advocacy group The Last Beach Cleanup. According to an analysis she conducted in 2020, California only has the capacity to sort and recycle 1 percent of its waste from plastic films and bags.

A single-use plastic bag from 2014, before California’s bag ban went into effect, instructs customers to recycle it at a store drop-off location. AP Photo

California residents can’t recycle plastic bags through their curbside recycling programs, as virtually none of the state’s material recovery facilities will accept them. Companies have argued around this by adding “store drop-off” to their recycling labels, with the idea that consumers could gather their plastic bags and drop them off at a Wal-Mart or some other participating retailer. In theory, the bags would then be picked up and reprocessed at a more specialized facility.

The reality, Dell said, is that “very, very, very few bags are collected in the very, very, very few bins” that have been set up statewide. She’s contested an industry group’s claim that there are more than 18,000 retail locations offering them; while an online directory lists 52 drop-off bins in Orange County, Dell could only find 18 when she tried to visit them. “There is no store drop-off system,” she told Treehugger last year.

What little plastic may be collected through these programs is unlikely to be turned into new plastic products. Recycled plastics tend not to be price-competitive with virgin plastics, and plastic bags in particular must usually be “downcycled” into lower quality material like drainage pipes.  

Meanwhile, more than half of Californians erroneously believe that plastic bags are OK to put in their curbside bins, in part because they feature the misleading chasing arrows symbol. These misplaced bags are known as a recycling “tangler” — they clog machinery in recycling facilities, making it harder to process legitimately recyclable materials and even posing safety hazards to workers.

On Wednesday, Bonta said he would remain open to evidence that plastic bags are recyclable. But if Novolex, Revolution, Inteplast, and the four other manufacturers can’t provide substantiation, his office could file an injunction “preventing the illegal production of plastic bags to be used in California.” It could also charge the companies “multi-millions of dollars” in civil penalties for having broken state law.

Novolex said in a statement to Plastics News that it’s reviewing the AG’s letter. The six other companies and two industry trade groups, the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance and the Plastics Industry Association, did not respond to Grist’s request for comment.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The plastics industry says its bags are recyclable. California’s attorney general wants proof. on Nov 4, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Report: 90% of all U.S. coal plants are contaminating groundwater

Fri, 11/04/2022 - 03:00

More than 90 percent of the country’s coal plants are contaminating water across 43 states, according to a new report. And nearly half of them have no plans to clean up the mess. 

The study, released on Thursday by the environmental watchdogs Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project, looked at 292 sites around the country, from the desert outside Las Vegas to the coast of Massachusetts. The researchers focused specifically on coal ash, a toxic byproduct of burning coal to produce power. 

Failure to clean up coal ash violates a federal rule that was passed in 2015 after a stormwater pipe burst at the Duke Energy Dan River Steam Station in North Carolina, spilling 39,000 tons of the contaminant into the Dan River. Coal ash contains cancer-causing heavy metals such as arsenic and cobalt. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, toxic sludge from the spill stretched over 70 miles downstream, threatening the drinking water quality of thousands of residents. 

One of the goals of the 2015 rule was to halt the industry’s practice of dumping coal ash into unlined ponds that allow the material to seep into groundwater, creating an environmental hazard for nearby communities, and most companies are now required to send their waste to safer containment sites. However, the report found that utilities are failing to abide by other aspects of the federal rule, such as cleaning up contaminated sites and restoring groundwater. 

“We know that the contamination of groundwater at these coal plants will get worse if nothing is done to control the source of pollution,” said Abel Russ, senior attorney at the Environmental Integrity Project and co-author of the report, in a press release. “We have an opportunity to clean these sites up before they create a much larger problem. If the industry would simply follow the rules, we could make significant progress.”

The authors ranked the most contaminated sites in the country using data that power companies were required to make available as a result of  the 2015 rule. At the top of the list are the San Miguel Plant, just south of San Antonio, Texas and the Reid Gardner Generating Station, located on the Moapa Indian Reservation in southern Nevada. At both sites, the report cites failures to properly monitor and remove contaminants. 

Mike Nasi, the environmental counsel for the San Miguel plant, characterized the report’s methodology as flawed and said that the company is working closely with regulators on reclamation efforts. Jennifer Schuricht, a spokesperson for the Reid Gardner Generating Station also refuted the report, saying that it is dismissive of the company’s clean up efforts, which include the removal of more than 2 million cubic yards of toxic waste. 

Contamination from coal ash isn’t distributed evenly across the country. According to the report, approximately 70 percent of decommissioning power plants with coal ash ponds are located in low-income neighborhoods or majority non-white census tracts. To help mitigate the public health risks in these areas, the report authors developed a set of recommendations, including  better federal oversight and enforceable cleanup schedules. Without these steps, they warn, these communities will have to endure the long-term effects of coal ash contamination.

“This report chronicles the bad faith of big coal in America that has created public and environmental health problems that will take generations to clean up in some cases,” said Fred Tutman, founder of the Patuxent Riverkeeper in Maryland. “It’s an ugly story and people need to take heed.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Report: 90% of all U.S. coal plants are contaminating groundwater on Nov 4, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Adaptation, loss and damage, and African oil: What’s at stake at COP27?

Thu, 11/03/2022 - 03:45

World leaders will converge in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt on Sunday for COP27, this year’s United Nations climate conference, where they will spend two weeks advancing global cooperation to cut planet-warming emissions and protect humanity from the impacts of climate change.

These annual events are about more than just negotiations between government officials. They are a forum for countries and companies to announce new climate commitments, like last year’s pledges to cut methane emissions, halt deforestation, and steer finance toward climate progress.

While last year’s conference was set against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year, it is Russia’s war in Ukraine and an impending global recession. Many Western countries are scrambling to wean themselves off Russian oil and gas, causing energy prices to soar and driving renewed interest in energy security. As a result, some countries are both speeding up their transitions to renewables while also increasing investments in fossil fuels, calling into question their climate commitments to reduce carbon emissions.

In the lead up to the meeting, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres has been warning that the world is headed towards “collective suicide” if countries don’t dramatically reduce their emissions. “That is why this COP is so important to reveal trust between developed economies and emerging economies and to regain ambition,” he said in a recent interview with the BBC. “We need much more than what has been promised until now.”

Whether nations will respond to Guterres’ call for more ambitious pledges remains to be seen. As the global climate community heads to Egypt, here are five major items we’re keeping our eye on at COP27:

The $100 billion promise

Before COP27 even gets underway, an unmet promise looms over the conference. From the embers of the Copenhagen COP in 2009, wealthy nations cobbled together a commitment to provide $100 billion a year to developing countries by 2020 to help them cut emissions and adapt to climate change. Two years on, developed countries still haven’t met that goal. The latest estimates for climate finance put the tally for 2020 at just $83.3 billion. It’s a collective goal, but a 2021 analysis by the World Resources Institute found that the United States wasn’t providing its fair share. Given the country’s position as one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases, both historically and today, the analysis found its fair share worked out to $40 billion to $47 billion — at least $21 billion more than its current contribution.

“There’s a U.S.-sized hole,” said Joe Thwaites, a coauthor of the analysis who is now an international climate finance advocate with the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council. “If the U.S. alone was pulling its weight, we’d actually be able to close the gap.” He added that developing countries are “understandably frustrated because for a decade they were told, ‘Trust us, we’re on track.’”

Women from the Masai community in Kenya take part in a Global Climate Strike in March to demand climate reparations and action from world leaders. Tony Karumba/AFP via Getty Images

To add insult to injury, more than 70 percent of the finance sent to developing nations between 2016 and 2020 was in the form of loans that countries had to repay. These may be suitable when the money is being used for projects that can provide a return — such as solar and wind farms — but many adaptation efforts do not provide cash flow. Some developing nations are now looking to have their debts forgiven.

Negotiators gathering in Egypt next week will continue discussing a new, higher collective goal for climate finance. Thwaites said that in order to reestablish trust with developing nations, wealthy countries must make good on their initial $100 billion promise while also setting a new ambitious goal for climate finance.

An adaptation goal

As nations try to rebuild trust around the $100 billion target, they will also be discussing how much of that money goes toward reducing emissions versus adapting to a warmer world. Developed countries have long focused COP negotiations on cutting greenhouse gases, with the idea that the faster we cut carbon, the less adapting the world will need to do. But that position ignores the climate impacts that many parts of the world are already experiencing, like the deadly drought in the horn of Africa or floods in Pakistan.

The Paris Agreement established a “global goal on adaptation,” but the commitment was more qualitative than quantitative, broadly asking countries to “enhance adaptive capacity” and “reduce vulnerability.” African nations have been urging the creation of a more operational goal with a clearer way to measure progress, such as the Paris Agreement’s temperature goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). Last year’s COP in Glasgow, Scotland, established a two-year initiative to further discuss this idea, and there could be some outcomes in Egypt. But a singular goal may prove challenging, as climate impacts and adaptation strategies vary considerably from region to region.

“We would like to see the conference reach a concrete decision on the global goal for adaptation,” Africa’s chief climate negotiator, Ephraim Mwepya Shitima of Zambia, recently told Africa Renewal, a United Nations publication.

Finance is also sure to be at the heart of these discussions. In 2020, just 34 percent of money from the $100 billion fund went to adaptation projects. The Glasgow Climate Pact called for developed countries to double the amount they provide to developing countries for adaptation to at least $40 billion by 2025, but even if that’s achieved, it is likely to fall short. By one estimate, the annual cost of adaptation in developing countries is set to increase to as much as $300 billion by 2030. “We are calling for adaptation financing to match these figures,” Shitima told Africa Renewal.

Loss and damage

For decades, developing nations have argued that historical carbon emissions by industrialized countries have baked in a level of warming that’s unavoidable — and that they are disproportionately shouldering the burden. On top of the $100 billion a year to cut emissions and adapt to climate change, developing nations want to set up a new fund to help them recover from the impacts of climate change, including climate-fueled natural disasters, slow-onset events such as sea-level rise, and the loss of cultural heritage.

But after years of wealthy governments successfully dodging these calls, the clamor for funding loss and damage has reached a fever pitch. For the first time ever, after much back-and-forth and pushback, loss and damage is included under climate finance in the provisional agenda for COP27. Countries will agree to a final agenda on day one, setting the tone for negotiations. Senior U.S. officials have said they want to agree on an agenda item and get procedural hurdles out of the way early. “Assuming that they can do that, then you can get into the real meaty discussion,” said Thwaites. “There’s got to be some tangible progress this year.”

Participants in a vigil protest for financial compensation for those severely affected by climate change outside the site where the U.N. Climate Change Conference COP26 is taking place in Glasgow. Christoph Soeder/picture alliance via Getty Images

Even the U.S. has backed down from its past obstructionist posture. In the last few weeks, climate envoy John Kerry and senior administration officials appear to have changed their tune, repeatedly stating that they are willing to negotiate on financial arrangements related to loss and damage. However, senior administration officials said last month that they’re not quite ready to support a new fund and want to study whether the use of existing funds and other financial solutions would be more appropriate. Loss and damage advocates will be watching closely to see if the U.S.’s new posture is a real departure from its past positions or more of the same.

Africa’s energy transition

The talks are also likely to raise questions about Africa’s fraught energy transition — especially in light of the ripple effects of Russia’s war in Ukraine. More than 600 million people in Africa lack access to electricity, and in the context of climate talks, that fact has long been used to debate two potential paths: Should African countries have a right to follow the same roadmap that wealthy, Western countries have taken to develop economically — exploit their oil and gas reserves and transition to clean energy over the long term? Or should they ‘leapfrog’ fossil fuels altogether?

An oil drilling block managed by British company Tullow Oil at Lokichar basin in Turkana county, Kenya, in 2017. Tony Karumba/AFP via Getty Images

Now, as Europe moves away from Russian oil and gas, European leaders are turning to Africa to develop its fossil fuel reserves. In the last few months, European leaders have descended on Algeria, Angola, and the Republic of Congo, among other African countries, to spur additional oil and gas drilling on the continent and build new gas terminals for export. That stands in stark contrast to attitudes at last year’s COP, where 20 countries pledged to end public finance for overseas fossil fuel development and many wealthy nations promised to prioritize funding for clean energy.

No matter which path African countries pursue, the common denominator is a need for substantial financial help from the rest of the world — which you may have noticed is a recurring theme here.

Equity and access

Much like COP26 in Glasgow last year when pandemic restrictions led advocates to label it the “most exclusionary” climate conference on record, questions of access and equity are dogging the meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh. This time a primary cause appears to be the Egyptian government’s efforts to restrict civil society groups and tamp down activism. Advocates typically stage protests and hold rallies to capitalize on the media attention during COPs and to raise awareness for their various positions. But this year in Egypt, where a ban on protests has existed for almost a decade, activists will be required to use a separate protest area away from the conference center where decision makers will be meeting.

In the lead up to the conference, United Nations human rights experts found that activists had been denied access to the conference in a variety of ways. Rising room rates for accommodation in the resort town Sharm el-Sheikh and delays in visa processing meant many civil society groups would not be able to attend. As a result, despite the conference being nicknamed the “African COP,” it’s unclear if the conference will feature many African activists. Last month, the Guardian reported that as of October 3, not a single activist from 10 African countries, including Egypt, had secured a spot to attend. How Egypt chooses to treat protesters at COP27 will be the focus of much discussion and threatens to overshadow climate negotiations.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Adaptation, loss and damage, and African oil: What’s at stake at COP27? on Nov 3, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Egypt is touting its climate agenda ahead of COP27. Is it all a mirage?

Thu, 11/03/2022 - 03:30

President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi of Egypt has worked hard to convince the world of his commitment to tackling climate change. His administration has overseen the construction of the largest solar farm on earth and sold the region’s first green bond for financing environmentally-friendly projects. This past May, he secured a deal with the German industrial company Siemens to build 2,000 kilometers of high-speed rail lines across Egypt. 

Next week, leaders and prominent scientists from around the globe will gather at the southern tip of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula for the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference. The event, also known as COP27, is a big deal for the Arab world’s most populated country and the wider region, amid expectations that leaders of rich nations will be pushed to confront the consequences of their historic carbon emissions on the developing world. And it will also help Sisi promote the image of his authoritarian government as one committed to securing a more sustainable future for Egypt’s 100 million citizens.

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, president of Egypt. Associated Press

But a closer examination of Sisi’s economic and environmental policies reveals an agenda marked by contradictions. In August, his administration announced a campaign to plant 100 million trees nationwide, but only after it had razed much of Cairo’s limited green space to build new superhighways. He has lauded Egypt’s water preservation programs, more vital now than ever as the Nile River shrinks, and in the same breath ordered that water be diverted from the river to construct a new capital city in the middle of the desert. More recently, the president came under fire for barring Egypt’s own environmental advocates from attending the climate conference. 

Sisi has called the summit a “turning point” that will put the world on track to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, an amount experts say is necessary to avert the most disastrous impacts of climate change. But given his track record on climate policy and human rights, political analysts and advocates have questioned whether the conference is simply an opportunity for Sisi to boost his international standing and usher more funding toward a national modernization campaign that has less to do with the environment and more to do with his own entrenchment of power.

Read Next Report: Global climate ambitions still fall short ahead of COP27

This year’s conference is “a very clear example of what greenwashing involves,” said Maged Madour, a political analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.. “From where I’m sitting, Sisi doesn’t give a sh*t about the environment. He’s not a green politician, he’s a brutal dictator.”

Sisi rose to power at a tumultuous time in Egypt’s history. When the Arab Spring broke out across the region in 2011, a popular uprising deposed longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak and threw the country into a period of uncertainty. Democratic elections were held, and Islamist politician Mohammed Morsi won by a narrow margin. His short-lived rule was marked by frequent power outages and economic turmoil.

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, president of Egypt, makes remarks at a press conference with German Chancellor Scholz in 2022. Bernd von Jutrczenka / picture alliance via Getty Images

When Sisi led the military coup that ousted Morsi in 2013, the public was desperate for some degree of stability. Sisi left his post in the Egyptian army to become head of the transitional government where he capitalized off this craving for normalcy, jailing more than 20,000 political opponents, dozens of whom died in police custody. It came as no surprise when he won the presidential election in 2014 with 97 percent of the vote (the same share the government said he received on his reelection in 2018). 

Sisi got to work revamping the country’s power sector. The tumultuous years following the 2011 uprising were plagued by chronic blackouts, often in the searing heat of summer. For many Egyptians, those power cuts became synonymous with political instability. Sisi poured resources into developing three new power stations and tapping reserves in the recently discovered Zohr natural gas field. In 6 years, Egypt went from not being able to supply the country with enough electricity to selling its surplus to other countries in the region. 

But the military general turned head-of-state did not stop at keeping the lights on. Early in his tenure, Sisi launched an ambitious plan to erect ostentatious new developments, from swooping superhighways and state-of-the-art bridges to a glittering new administrative capital in the desert, 50 kilometers from Cairo.

The construction site of the Central Business District CBD project, as seen in 2022, in Egypt’s new administrative capital in east of Cairo, Egypt. Wang Dongzhen / Xinhua via Getty Images

“It’s all part of this effort to reestablish the state as this engine of development,” said Michael Hanna, program director of the International Crisis Group, a think tank that performs research on global instability. He likened it to the modernization efforts of former president Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1960s, which saw the construction of the Aswan Dam and a suburb of Cairo, Helwan. “It’s a throwback to a different era.” 

While the slew of mega-projects have garnered Sisi an air of legitimacy within Egypt and abroad, it has come at a stinging cost. Since they’ve been largely financed with foreign loans, the government’s debt has quadrupled over the past decade and helped push the country into an economic crisis. The Egyptian pound has fallen more than 40 percent since March, with the state heavily taxing its vast urban poor to avoid defaulting on its loans. Mandour said that helps explain why the president has spent the last several years promoting his sustainability initiatives abroad. 

“He can borrow more based on that propaganda,” Mandour said. “The whole ‘I’m a sustainable green politician’ thing, that’s for the outside world so that they feel better about giving him money.” He used the example of Sisi’s decision to build a new high-speed rail connecting the Mediterranean to the Red Sea rather than rehabilitate the deteriorating train system along the Nile River, where 95 percent of the country’s population resides and fatalities from train crashes occur regularly.

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Sisi has pushed for conversations around climate reparations to take center stage at this year’s COP. These discussions are expected to focus on whether wealthy nations with historically high emissions should compensate countries with relatively small carbon footprints such as Egypt for the economic losses they have incurred from climate change. Mandour questioned whether more funds should be given to support Sisi’s projects, which have done little to help the places hardest hit by rising seas, punishing droughts, and extreme heat.

Egypt’s long coastline, low rainfall levels, and densely populated Nile River Delta make it extremely vulnerable. Sea level rise has already uprooted whole neighborhoods in the fabled port city of Alexandria, and farmers in the Delta have struggled for years to break even as flooding and soil salinization diminishes their yields. 

Sisi has responded by erecting seawalls and dumping thousands of tons of concrete on Alexandria’s beaches. While some farmers have since reported less flooding, experts have called the barriers a short-term solution that will only push the problem to other areas along the coast. Residents of some seaside neighborhoods have also criticized the government for forcibly relocating their families to austere housing developments where they are forced to pay higher rents than many of them can afford.

Workers prepare to place cement blocks to reinforce the sea wall against rising water levels on the corniche in Alexandria, Egypt. AP Photo / Maya Alleruzzo

Omar Robert Hamilton, an Egyptian-British filmmaker and writer, told Grist that the government’s response to these challenges is more confounding when taking into account that it’s investing billions of public dollars in that new administrative capital in the desert. At a price tag of $59 billion, the city is Sisi’s most extravagant project yet. The plan is for the as-yet unnamed city to boast the tallest building in Africa along with a mega-mosque, a palatial presidential estate, and an Olympic sports complex.

According to the president, the new “smart city” offers a sustainable solution to Cairo’s overpopulation problem (the metropolis of 21 million is growing at a rate of 2 percent per year). But critics have questioned the legitimacy of the project’s green sticker, arguing that it will be unaffordable for the vast majority of Egyptians.

“What is sustainable about a new capital city in the desert filled with many million tons of concrete?” Hamilton asked. As other critics have pointed out, he believes the new capital is a way for Sisi to distance his government from population centers, fortifying it against public protest in case of another uprising. 

A bulldozer demolishes homes as part of a mega projects campaign that include building new cities, roads, bridges and tunnels in Cairo, Egypt. The projects have erased some of the oldest remaining green spaces in Cairo. AP Photo / Nariman El-Mofty

Human rights groups estimate that Egypt currently holds some 60,000 political prisoners, many of whom are subject to torture and inhumane conditions. In 2016 alone, the Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms reported that its lawyers received 830 torture complaints and that an additional 14 people had died from physical abuse in custody. 

When he spoke to Grist, Hamilton was attending a sit-in in London for his cousin Alaa Abd El-Fattah, an Egyptian-British blogger, software developer and political activist who has been in and out of detention over the past decade. El-Fattah has been on hunger strike since April to protest being kept in solitary confinement and denied access to books, exercise, and contact with British embassy officials. El-Fattah’s case has attracted greater attention in the weeks leading up to the UN summit, as the international community pressures Sisi to confront his regime’s human rights abuses and allow Egyptian environmental advocates to participate in the conference.

“There’s a big international call for there to be a prisoner amnesty if Egypt is to be taken seriously as a partner in any kind of construction of a just future,” Hamilton said. “So we’re doing everything we can to get the UK to focus and push on this a bit in the next 10 days.” 

Sanaa Seif holds a picture of her brother Alaa Abd El-Fattah, who is currently on hunger strike in an Egyptian prison. Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Sisi fought hard to host this year’s COP 27 and bring the world’s most powerful leaders to Egypt. But hosting the summit has also attracted unwanted attention to the unsavory details of the country’s political system. 

“It’s something that I think he did not anticipate but it’s happening anyway,” said Mandour. The high-profile conference “might be kind of a double edged weapon for him.”

Hanna, from the International Crisis Group, said that the unexpected consequences of hosting events like COP is what makes them interesting and potentially even influential after all the diplomats go home. 

“The primary driver of [Egypt] hosting COP is not environmental policy. But these things take on a kind of life of their own,” he said. The conference is going to end, he added, and Sisi will have both enjoyed the international attention and endured the increased scrutiny of his human rights record. “And when everybody leaves, like what’s left? I’m interested in that.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Egypt is touting its climate agenda ahead of COP27. Is it all a mirage? on Nov 3, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Wealthy nations pledged to fund climate adaptation abroad. They’re way behind schedule.

Thu, 11/03/2022 - 03:15

Developing nations are suffering some of the worst impacts of a warming world. A multi-year drought in the Horn of Africa is driving the most severe famine of the 21st century. This summer, monsoon floods put much of Pakistan underwater, displacing millions, and heat waves shattered records in countries across North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. 

But despite being hit hardest, these nations have historically contributed the least to climate change. Wealthy nations that industrialized first are responsible for the lion’s share of greenhouse gas emissions. That’s why in 2010, world leaders established the Green Climate Fund, with a $100 billion a year goal to help developing countries reduce emissions and adapt to climate change.

More than a decade since the fund’s creation, developed countries are still not meeting their pledges, creating an “adaptation gap,” according to a new report from the United Nations Environment Programme, or UNEP, which described financing for climate adaptation as “too little, too slow.” In 2020, loans and grants that reached developing countries for climate work totaled $83 billion – $17 billion short of the Green Climate Fund’s ambition. Of that, just $29 billion, or one-third, went to adaptation and resiliency projects. 

As climate change impacts worsen, the Adaptation Gap Report released today warns, the gap between the cost of adaptation and funding will only continue to widen. 

“The world is failing to protect people from the here-and-now impacts of the climate crisis,” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said in a press statement. “Those on the front lines of the climate crisis are at the back of the line for support… At least half of all climate finance should flow towards adaptation.”According to the UNEP’s Emissions Gap Report released last week, the world is on track to warm by 2.4 to 2.6 degrees Celsius (4.3 to 4.7 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century. That’s if countries meet their emissions reduction pledges. With the way things are going now, temperatures could rise 2.8 degrees C, based on current policies. Given these extreme degrees of warming, the Adaptation Gap Report estimates that developing countries will need $160 billion to $340 billion for adaptation by 2030. That’s up to 10 times more than current funding. By 2050, the cost of adaptation could rise up to $565 billion a year.

People fish on concrete barriers built to protect against sea-level rises in Alexandria, Egypt. Ahmed Gomaa/Xinhua via Getty Images

This funding gap is not for lack of adaptation planning by developing nations. The report shows that among the 197 countries party to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, 80 percent have at least one adaptation plan in place. Strategies are becoming more detailed and time-bound, and an increasing number show equity considerations for women and marginalized groups such as Indigenous peoples. The number of climate resiliency projects funded is increasing, just not at the necessary pace.

In addition, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development reported that over 70 percent of funding sent to developing nations in 2020 was in the form of loans that countries must repay. Guterres called on developed countries and financial institutions to coalesce in support of developing nations’ adaptation efforts, to provide funding “preferably as grants, not loans,” and to create a roadmap to deliver on last year’s promises to increase adaptation funding to $40 billion per year by 2025. 

“The world must urgently reduce greenhouse gas emissions to limit the impacts of climate change. But we must also urgently increase efforts to adapt to the impacts that are already here and those to come,” Inger Andersen, executive director of UNEP, said in a statement.

The report encourages more inclusive planning, since many adaptation initiatives still do not adequately involve marginalized groups in their development and therefore may exacerbate climate vulnerability. Noting that climate adaptation and mitigation are intrinsically linked, it also encourages investment in nature-based solutions, like restoring salt marshes or protecting peatlands, that sequester carbon and reduce climate risk. 

While investing in ecosystem protection and restoration is extremely important for biodiversity, well-being, and other sustainability goals, it is worth noting that The Land Gap Report, a report by 20 researchers across the globe released on Tuesday by Melbourne Climate Futures, stressed the limited potential for nature-based solutions to mitigate climate change. That report recommended that land-based solutions not be used to offset greenhouse gas emissions from other sectors, and that they should only be considered a complement to the rapid phase out of emissions from energy production, agriculture, and deforestation. 

The call for the rapid acceleration of adaptation funding from wealthy nations has been heard countless times before, but it is expected to take on a higher profile in this year’s COP27 negotiations in Egypt, along with loss and damage, which is on the agenda for the first time. Related to but distinct from adaptation, loss and damage addresses the unavoidable losses that developing nations will incur, and have already incurred, from climate change. Developing countries are calling for a dedicated separate fund to recover from these impacts. 

“It’s time for a global climate adaptation overhaul that puts aside excuses and picks up the toolbox to fix the problems,” said Guterres. “At COP27, [nations] must present a credible roadmap with clear milestones on how this will be delivered.” 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Wealthy nations pledged to fund climate adaptation abroad. They’re way behind schedule. on Nov 3, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Report: Countries need an impossible amount of land to meet climate pledges

Thu, 11/03/2022 - 03:00

To reach net-zero carbon goals with their current plans, countries around the world will need 1.2 billion hectares of land, an area larger than the United States and equivalent to the world’s total cropland, for carbon removal projects. More than half of that land would need to be transformed into new forests. According to a new study, countries are over reliant on massive tree planting projects, and other land-based carbon removal schemes, to meet climate targets and avoid more effective measures like cutting fossil fuel use or conserving primary forests. 

The “Land Gap” report, compiled by 20 researchers around the world and released this week by Melbourne Climate Futures, is the first to calculate the massive gap between governments’ reliance on land for carbon mitigation and the role that land can realistically play given availability and competing needs. The report also highlights that using land for carbon removal via tree planting programs will have negative impacts on ecosystems, Indigenous communities, food security, and human rights.

“There are assumptions that land can save you somehow from having to do deeper cuts in terms of fossil fuel production and use,” said Anne Larson, one of the authors of the report. “It’s distracting and it’s not going to work.” 

For years Indigenous groups have warned about the dangers of depending on forests to remove carbon from the atmosphere without clear guarantees of Indigenous rights. The report shows global climate pledges have the potential to put communities at higher risk of danger. Repurposing land for plantations and other tree planting-based carbon removal could push Indigenous peoples from their land ultimately weakening the environment. 

“We will lose everything,” said Levi Sucre, Bribri from Costa Rica and the Coordinator of the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests. “We have to figure out an alternative way to sustain our lands, our communities.”

Tree planting has been shown to be a tenuous strategy to mitigate climate change, and part of the problem is the accounting system used to track carbon emissions. Cutting fossil fuel use is a guaranteed way to reduce atmospheric carbon while trees are unreliable: they take a long time to grow, need land that often isn’t available, can be harvested, or can even burn down. However, countries treat cutting fossil fuels and planting trees as the same. That means countries can make ambitious pledges based on future land use changes instead of jeopardizing short term economic interests by cutting fossil fuels. The report recommends countries make deep cuts in emissions from industrial agriculture, deforestation and fossil fuels instead of relying on unavailable land for carbon offsets. “We should really be seeing reductions and removals as two different things,” said Kate Dooley, one of the report’s authors. 

As well, researchers found that if land-based strategies are to work as a complement to emission cuts, they’ll need to be oriented away from simply planting trees in order to be just and effective. To that end, the study emphasized safeguarding the rights of Indigenous peoples in order to protect forests. Research has shown that the world’s healthiest forests are on protected Indigenous lands, and securing Indigenous land tenure rights, as well as political status, would protect communities and the lands they call home.

“We are under constant threat due to land disputes. We need to have a clear demarcation of indigenous lands. We need effective land protection policy, and also protection of those of us who live in these areas,” said Sonia Guajajara, the first Indigenous person to be elected federal deputy in São Paulo. “That is urgent. That is fundamental.” 

Tree planting and reforestation projects typically prioritize monocultures of fast growing commercial trees over biodiversity. Offering limited ecosystem integrity, they are extremely susceptible to fires and droughts, emit carbon when they are harvested, and, even in the best case scenarios, they don’t provide immediate, critical carbon storage payoffs because trees need time to grow. Instead, the report emphasizes protecting standing forests from extractive industries like logging, mining, and agriculture as the first priority. Most critical are primary forests, which store the most carbon and are the most stable and resilient to climate change. 

The report encourages restoring degraded natural ecosystems instead of planting new forests, or creating monoculture plantations. The U.N.’s Global Land Outlook report estimates 5 billion hectares of land is suitable for restoration, but at the moment, countries’ pledges examined in the study only account for restoring 551 million hectares of degraded ecosystems leaving room for world leaders to focus on ecological restoration, natural regeneration, and agroforestry. However, only twenty countries mention agroforestry in their climate plans. 

Countries that signed the Paris Climate Accords are supposed to update their commitments every five years at least, and in 2021, the U.S. set a goal of reducing net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50 percent below 2005 levels in the next eight years. The authors of the report hope that as world leaders head to the COP27 climate summit to discuss their climate pledges and make new, more ambitious commitments, they will reconsider the impact of carbon removal and refocus on ecosystem restoration, primary forests, and protecting Indigenous rights. 

“It isn’t too late for countries to rethink the way they use land to achieve their climate goals,” said Brendan Mackey, a report co-author.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Report: Countries need an impossible amount of land to meet climate pledges on Nov 3, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

How centuries-old whaling logs are filling gaps in our climate knowledge

Wed, 11/02/2022 - 03:45

A little after 7:30 in the morning on Wednesday, December 7, 1887, in the aftermath of remarkably strong northeasterly winds, Captain William A. Martin instructed the crew of the Eunice H. Adams, a whaling ship from Massachusetts, to anchor in cerulean water roughly 24 feet deep, close to Port Royal, South Carolina. Around 9 a.m., Charles Hamilton, a desperate crew member, jumped overboard — deserting his post, with the intention of swimming to land. He was intercepted mid-route by another ship, which returned him to the leaking brig he had tried to escape. 

Later that day, an act of near-mutiny occurred. According to the ship’s logbook, a signed letter from the majority of the crew was sent ashore to Port Royal authorities. In it, the men complained that the vessel they sailed on was “unseaworthy,” unhappy with the unplanned stop and delay for repairs merely months into their voyage, in the hope that they’d be released from duty. Authorities did nothing. A sheet of rain beat down on the Eunice H. Adams, and the miserable crew was forced to continue to carry on to Cabo Verde, an archipelago on the westernmost point of Africa.

Logbooks, like the nearly 200-page document kept aboard the Eunice H. Adams, served as legal reports, necessary for insurance claims, which meant log keepers kept exhaustive records of the crew’s day-to-day exploits. They tracked the ship’s location, other vessels encountered, and both weather and sea conditions along the routes they sailed. But they also kept clues for the future: Stored within the pages of the 18th and 19th-century whaling logbooks is a cache of ancient weather records, meticulously logged by crews traversing the world’s oceans. 

Drawings of ships decorate the pages of a historic whaling logbook. Courtesy of Jayne Doucette, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

“One of the most important pillars in understanding how events are, or are not, changing is observations,” said Stephanie Herring, a climate attribution scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “These historical data collection efforts help us extend back the historical record so we can better see what changes might be ‘natural,’ and which we might be driving due to human influence.”

Researchers believe that these handwritten whaling logbooks could be novel guides to understanding the course of climate change. By seeing how the climate once was, they can better understand where it’s going. “This is the language of the sea,” said Timothy Walker, a historian at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. “The whaling industry is the best documented industry in the world.” Walker and Caroline Ummenhofer, an oceanographer and climate scientist with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, are working with a team of scientists and volunteers mining archival documents to help inform temperature and weather models — weaving records from a nearly-obsolete industry with modern climate predictions.

Analyzing nearly 54,000 daily weather records from whaling ships, the Woods Hole historic whaling project has mined 110 logbooks to date, from a total cache of about 4,300. The data includes everything from latitude and longitude to ship direction, wind direction and speed, sea state, cloud cover, and general weather. The records are housed in private and public collections across New England, once a key hub for whaling ships returning from across the globe. Those results have been codified and added to a database that cross-compares the data points from these records with modern global wind patterns, doing things like compiling wind observations made in a specific area during a clear period of time. Large-scale wind patterns influence rainfall, drought, floods, and extreme storms — and more accurate measures of these patterns increases the accuracy of today’s forecasts. 

A sign marks the edge of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Matt Stone / MediaNews Group / Boston Herald

“Whalers go to places where other ships don’t go. The whalers are going out in the middle of nowhere,” said Walker. “That’s great from the perspective of weather data collection, because they’re often the only people reporting weather from 200 or 300 years ago, from the regions where they happen to be hunting whales.” 

Walker says they’re currently using these documents to identify geographic ranges where the strongest winds were encountered by whalers and comparing the strength of those wind patterns in the same areas in recent years. 

With that data, the team hopes to establish a baseline for long-term wind patterns in remote parts of the world where “very few” instrumental data sets prior to 1957 exist. Currently, the project is only focused on wind data, but they hope to eventually focus on other information in the logs such as rainfall, cloudiness, the condition of the sea, or whether the surface was choppy or calm on a given day. The more data points they collect, the better the accuracy of existing climate models — a 2020 study published in the journal Nature found that a lack of predictability in wind patterns above many of the world’s oceans has led to unreliable rain forecasts.

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Historical records have already informed everything from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports to NOAA’s 20th Century Reanalysis Project. Resources like these not only regularly assess and communicate the impacts of climate change to better inform policy, but also produce global datasets that provide the best possible estimates of past weather conditions. (The 20th Century Reanalysis Project’s digitally accessible resources were cited in 217 scientific studies published in 2022 alone.) Through them, scientists can expand our comprehension of climate change and what’s to come. 

Take the Data Rescue: Archives and Weather project, known as DRAW, for instance. Launched in 2017, the initiative has brought together hundreds of volunteers who digitally transcribe information from historical weather logs dating as far back as 1863, which are stored at McGill Observatory in Montreal. As of late, at least 456 users have contributed to that platform and transcribed 1,292,397 pieces of weather data, out of an estimated 9 million. 

Then there’s NOAA’s Old Weather project, a major inspiration for the Woods Hole historic whaling logbook project. Since 2010, thousands of volunteers with Old Weather have digitally explored, marked, and transcribed logs, compiling data on more than 14 million past weather observations and contributing more than 1.5 million page images to the U.S. National Archives. They’ve analyzed everything from the Navy’s World War II records to Arctic records from whalers as far back as 1849. 

In the latest phase of the project, the Old Weather team has transcribed over 1 million lines of data, where each line represents the weather for one hour of the day, and collected more than 4.6 million individual items of weather data and at least 34,000 reports of sea ice conditions. 

An engraving shows of a whaling scene, with a large ship in the background and a whale in the foreground. Kean Collection / Getty Images

That data transcription is mainly the work of volunteers like Michael Purves. “To me, it’s like a job,” said 75-year-old Purves, a retired meteorologist who has spent over a decade volunteering his time for the project. “I probably average at least 40 hours a week.” One of the logbooks Purves most recently worked on is from the USS Omaha, a sailing warship commissioned in 1872. He transcribes wind patterns, temperatures, and other events observed from the military ship that sailed the Arctic seas at the turn of the 20th century, and talks about the voyage as if he had been part of it — something he says many of the citizen scientists involved with the project do. “My first ship I was on was the HMS Grafton, which was a British cruiser,” Purves said. “When I joined it was 1915, and so they were taking part in World War I.”

Research collected through initiatives like these has contributed to the International Comprehensive Ocean-Atmosphere Data Set and the National Centers for Environmental Prediction Global Forecast System. It’s been used in discoveries ranging from the climate effect of historic volcanic eruptions to investigations into bird migratory patterns and the recorded time and height of water levels over a 50-year-period in the 19th century at a tidal island in the United Kingdom. It’s also been used to track weather conditions recorded during a 1939 extreme snowfall event in New Zealand. 

The success of these projects is pivotal for models like the 20th Century Reanalysis Project and the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecast’s ERA-20C; both rely on independent, historic weather observations to form a baseline for climate research and address contemporary climate questions. Most recently, historic data has contributed to global marine heat wave forecasts and helped identify drivers behind long-term droughts in Hawaii.

The Woods Hole historic whaling project hopes to add to the growing library of historic climate data, but in contrast to a global effort like the Old Weather project, these whaling logbooks have had less than two dozen researchers assessing them. Actual results from their work don’t exist beyond illustrative examples as of yet (they expect to have definitive data to share within the next nine months), but by the time the submission deadline for the next IPCC report rolls around, the team hopes their work will help inform it and eventually be incorporated into similar datasets that use results from Old Weather.

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution climate scientist and oceanographer Caroline Ummenhofer, seated, and maritime historian Timothy Walker, standing, extract and analyze weather data from whaling ship logbooks dating as far back as the late 1700s. Courtesy of Jayne Doucette, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

“What we want to see is, ‘Where did the whalers experience the strongest winds? At what latitude? And was that where the strongest winds are being experienced today? Or was that further north or further south, and how has it varied over the 100 years or so that the whalers went to this area?’” said Ummenhofer.

With this work, Ummenhofer and her team aim to minimize what’s missing in climate reporting: usable information from data-sparse regions of the world. 

On Monday, May 14th, 1888, as a moderate trade wind blew from the northeast between Cabo Verde and the Caribbean, the crew aboard the Eunice H. Adams killed two sperm whales found in the middle of the Atlantic. 

“At 10 AM, lowered the two port boats,” wrote Arthur O. Gibbons, the vessel’s log keeper. “Larboard boat went on and struck a small whale. Soon after the waist boat went and struck a larger one,” wrote Gibbons. “Cut in the small whale. So ends this day.” Six days later, the crew caught and killed another two sperm whales.

An engraving from the 1820s shows men in small row boats surrounding a sperm whale and spearing it with harpoons. Kean Collection / Getty Images

When whaling in North America hit its peak in the mid-1800s, hundreds of ships armed with gun-loaded harpoons set off on hunts in the South Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. In 1853 alone, more than 8,000 whales were killed by American whalers, making sales of $11 million. The industry was in high demand as Americans had begun to rely on whale oil as fuel for lamps, ingredients for soap, and lubricants for everything from guns to typewriters to machinery

There’s a curious element to using historic whaling records to inform modern climate models, records that only exist because of the commercial popularity of whaling, which drove what may have been the largest culling of animals in terms of biomass and even increased global emissions. When a single whale carcass sinks into the deep sea after death, it sequesters an average of 33 tons of CO2. This is released back into the atmosphere when whales are captured by ocean fisheries. A 2020 study published in the journal Science Advances found whaling has contributed significantly to climate change, releasing at least 730 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere since 1950.   

Walker is quick to point out that the global, modern, industrialized whaling industry — which operated with steam and diesel factory vessels from the 1920s until whaling bans went into effect in the 1980s — was responsible for “more than eight times as many whale captures over a much shorter period of time.” An estimated 2.9 million whales were killed worldwide in the 20th century — the majority in the Southern Hemisphere.

Drawings of whales appear in a whaling logbook from 1855. Courtesy of Jayne Doucette, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

On Sunday morning, December 16th, 1888, a few dozen miles off the coast of the Portuguese island of Pico Azores, the most remote oceanic archipelago in the north Atlantic, a light breeze stirred the waters as the Eunice H. Adams sailed to its next destination for repairs: Horta Faial, Portugal. 

Onboard, Captain Martin was up against a nearly impossible task — placating an exhausted, downtrodden crew working hard to keep the badly leaking boat afloat, all while attempting to do his job: catching and killing whales. The logbook reflects dozens of times the captain had to write to the ship’s owner requesting funds for emergency repairs needed throughout the vessel’s 29-month, transatlantic voyage.

More than a century later, a lack of funds continues to be a theme for the Eunice H. Adams, and other ships associated with the Woods Hold historic whaling project. Investing in historic projects like this one can be notoriously difficult. The DRAW project, for instance, was started in 2017 by climatologist Victoria Slonosky out of her home in Quebec and relied on volunteers to digitize the open-source project. “It is not easy to find funding to transcribe historical records,” Slonosky said. 

Without citizen scientists, she estimates the scope of their project would take a single researcher around 45,000 hours of work, and cost at least $200,000 to transcribe around 4 million weather observations. A recently published study reported that more than 16,000 volunteers contributed to reviewing 66,000 sheets of historic rainfall records from the United Kingdom and Ireland — in just 16 days. Crafting blog posts and placing ads in the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society, Slonosky invited volunteers to help her transcribe. From there, the work caught the attention of researchers at McGill University before ballooning out to incorporate partners at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Montréal and Geothink; with the team launching a web platform devised by climatologists, geographers, archivists, data scientists and programmers. “This became an interdisciplinary project to say, ‘Come explore our records. And see how we can use these records to further our understanding of climate change,’” Slonosky said. 

Like DRAW, the Woods Hole whaling project is costly in terms of time and money, and while Walker and Ummenhofer have received some funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation and private foundations, they are actively looking for more to underwrite their work. Walker sees the effort as a decade-long endeavor that dovetails whaling records in the U.S. with those stored in museums across the world. He spent the summer in Portugal setting up a collaboration with the University of Lisbon that will incorporate about 3,800 logbooks containing Portuguese naval records, spanning 1760 to 1940, into the whaling project’s purview. 

“There are a lot of avenues that historians can explore, to work hand in glove with scientists,” Walker said. Whether it’s ancient medical records or port records, he sees centuries-old documentation as an untapped asset in our long-term understanding of climate change. “There is a gold mine in our backyard for finding out information on past weather patterns globally.”  

The expedition of the Eunice H. Adams officially came to an end in the spring of 1890. 

“The ship was leaking badly from the beginning of the voyage in October 1887 to its end in March 1890,” said historian Stephen Luce, one of the historians currently logging data for the Woods Hole whaling project. Captain Martin was a Black sea captain, Luce said, suspecting that the captain being given a leaky ship may have been reflective of racism. 

Roughly one month before the Eunice H. Adams returned to Massachusetts, Martin was replaced by another member of the crew. The ship’s logbook offers no explanation. What it does offer is a look into the captain’s struggles as one of the only Black sea captains leading such expeditions at the time. “My guess is that all the better ships, the good ships that were out there, went to the white captains,” said Luce. 

Luce says he doesn’t know what happened to Martin after he left the Eunice H. Adams. Records suggest that the transatlantic voyage aboard the dilapidated brig was his final journey at sea, with one account saying he fell ill and resigned of his own accord, returning home as a paralytic.

What Luce does know is that Martin died in 1907 and that he was laid to rest in a humble plot beside his wife in Chappaquiddick, Massachusetts, close to the place the Martins once called home. “I was actually thinking about visiting his grave,” said Luce. 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline How centuries-old whaling logs are filling gaps in our climate knowledge on Nov 2, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Oregon tried to inform residents about wildfire risk. The backlash was explosive.

Wed, 11/02/2022 - 03:30

Last summer, after a series of devastating wildfires, the Oregon state legislature passed a sweeping bipartisan bill to protect against future blazes. The law unlocked money to develop new building codes in vulnerable areas and help residents who wanted to fireproof their homes. It reached the governor’s desk with support from Portland-area Democrats and rural Republicans alike.

Before state officials could implement the new regulations, though, they needed to figure out which areas faced the greatest fire danger. For this reason, the bill required the state forestry department to create a comprehensive wildfire risk map within a year, assigning a risk score to every household in the state. The forestry department finished the map right on time in June. It then mailed a letter to every homeowner who was in a high-risk zone, alerting them that new regulations would be coming soon. 

This seemingly anodyne mapping measure produced a frenzy of backlash from every corner of the state. Hundreds of residents showed up at public meetings to berate state officials for designating their homes high risk, and hundreds more wrote in to contest their risk status. Many argued that the state was going to make their insurance more expensive and their property less valuable.

The same Republican lawmakers who had supported the wildfire bill then pounced on the map as an example of state overreach. In early August, the state caved and withdrew the map, vowing to spend another year gathering feedback before releasing a final version. In a tight race for state governor that will be decided next week, the Democratic candidate has distanced herself from the old version of the risk assessment, saying the revision “must address concerns from property owners.”

The fracas over the wildfire map serves as a warning to other states and cities that are trying to adapt to climate change. When the government tries to impose new restrictions on homeowners in vulnerable areas — or even tries to inform them about the risks they face — the homeowners may fight back. Many residents who protested the map were misinformed about how the new regulations work, but there was a grain of truth to their complaints: By publicizing their high-risk status, the state may make their homes less valuable and harder to sell. Like many other adaptation efforts around the country, Oregon’s wildfire program may face the greatest pushback from the very people it’s trying to help.

Kim Mead, who lives on a ranch in mountainous Wasco County, was one of the homeowners who fell in the state’s high-risk category.

“They sent us a letter and it showed that we were in the extreme level,” she told Grist. “We called the number to appeal, but nobody answered. There was not a chance to give input.”

Mead has cleared trees and vegetation on her property and surrounded her house with water and gravel to prevent fires from reaching it. Even though two wildfires have scorched her grazing fields in just the last three years, she feels confident that her house itself is safe.

A few weeks after the letters went out, the state held a virtual meeting to discuss the map. Around 900 residents called in, filling the two-hour video session with a litany of complaints.

“I don’t know what kind of science you used,” said one resident, “but it doesn’t make sense to me.” Another called the measure a “complete fraud, unmistakably a fraud.… I’m having a hard time getting out everything I have to say, because I’m angry.” The state had planned to host an in-person meeting, but it changed to a virtual format after receiving a phone message with a violent threat.

It wasn’t long before all these residents got organized. Nicole Chaisson, a hay farmer who lives outside of a riverside town called The Dalles, started collecting stories of people who’d prepared their property for wildfires but still found themselves designated as high risk. She started working with homeowners in other parts of the state to organize letter-writing campaigns to local legislators. (Chaisson has been active in politics before: In 2020 she founded a Facebook group that spread a baseless theory about the state changing voters’ party affiliation without their consent.)

The first version of the Oregon Wildfire Risk Explorer map, published earlier this year. The state retracted the map after public outcry. Oregon Wildfire Risk Explorer

“A lot of people were just, you know, shocked,” Chaisson told Grist. “The big thing that people think of is, you know, the worst-case scenario, which is losing your insurance and having your property taken away.” Pretty soon, the residents had caught the attention of their elected representatives, many of whom had supported the omnibus fire bill the previous year. After hearing the complaints, some of them reversed their positions. 

Mark Owens, a Republican state legislator who represents the rural eastern part of the state, said he’s worried about how the map will affect home values. Like Chaisson, he worries that insurance costs could go up, and that home values might drop as a result. Some homeowners in risky areas might even have trouble selling their properties, he speculated.

“You’ve possibly just devalued … that property asset by inaccurately reporting the fire danger,” he told Grist. Owens voted for the wildfire bill that ordered the map, saying it would help protect his fire-prone constituents, but since it debuted he’s been focused on rolling it back — also in an attempt to protect his fire-prone constituents, or at least their equity.

Some of these concerns are unfounded. Residents like Mead, who have already hardened their homes against fire, won’t have to do anything once the state debuts the new regulations, since they’ll already be in compliance.  As for insurance, the state insists that its map isn’t causing insurers to raise rates. For one thing, most insurance companies have their own algorithms for evaluating risk, and therefore don’t need the state’s. 

“The statewide wildfire risk map is a representation of risk that already exists — it doesn’t create the risk,” said Derek Gasperini, a spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Forestry who led the state’s mapping work. He says that insurers make their own decisions about raising prices and offering coverage. When it comes to home values, though, the map’s possible effects are harder to predict. Studies have shown that informing buyers about flood risk can reduce home sale prices or drive customers away, but it’s unclear whether that trend holds when it comes to fire.

“We don’t have a way to mitigate that concern or a response to concerns about home value,” said Gasperini. “That is subjective.”

Even so, the state is far from alone in its effort to map household fire risk. Utilities and real estate companies have plowed millions of dollars into efforts to predict wildfires, developing detailed datasets and algorithms. Earlier this year, the nonprofit First Street Foundation published a national map of fire risk, allowing anyone to search fire risk for any address. If home prices start to fall in the Oregon map’s extreme zones, the map won’t be the only reason why — or even the biggest.

Still, the state’s map generated a special kind of backlash from rural Oregonians, who seemed to blame the state far more than they blamed the insurers or the housing market. Owens, the Republican legislator, says that’s not because of the map itself, but because of the political dynamics behind the adaptation effort. When a liberal administration tells conservative voters what they need to do on their properties, he said, there’s always going to be backlash. (Oregon’s current governor is Democrat Kate Brown, and Democrats hold majorities in both chambers of the legislature.)

“If they haven’t done great outreach with the community and sat down with them, they’re gonna cause us to go political again,” Owens said. “The only way we can get them to slow down is through the public process of being loud, and that doesn’t make good policy.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Oregon tried to inform residents about wildfire risk. The backlash was explosive. on Nov 2, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Transmission impossible: Are Democrats punting on permitting reform?

Wed, 11/02/2022 - 03:15

Massachusetts has to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, the deadline the United Nations says is consistent with a livable planet, under a sweeping climate law signed by the state’s Republican governor last year. In order to do that, the Bay State plans to pipe in hydroelectric power from Canada. But the project has run into a roadblock: stiff opposition from the nearby state of Maine. 

Last year, Maine voters rejected the buildout of a proposed transmission line, which would run through its western flank and carry power from dams in Quebec to customers in Massachusetts. As a result, the clean energy project is stalled, maybe indefinitely — the most recent legal setback occurred last week — and Massachusetts’ effort to wean itself off of fossil fuels has suffered a serious blow. 

New England Clean Energy Connect, as the troubled Massachusetts project is called, is representative of a larger issue: Building new infrastructure in this country is a torturously slow process that often gets slowed down further by community opposition and legal challenges. Renewable and clean energy projects are particularly vulnerable to delay. Unlike natural gas pipelines, which are under the authority of an independent federal agency called the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, transmission lines are at the mercy of the states they run through. 

As more states commit to new climate plans, more interstate transmission lines like the one Massachusetts is fighting to build will have to crisscross the United States. There are precious few other ways to get clean power from renewable sources like wind and solar farms, geothermal plants, and hydroelectric dams, often sited in rural areas, to the dense urban centers that want to plug into it. Congress could speed up transmission construction by becoming the ultimate referee on interstate power lines, but so far lawmakers have declined to step into that role. The issue has taken on new urgency ahead of the midterm elections, which could wrest congressional control away from Democrats and shake up the power dynamics in Washington. If Democrats can’t figure out a way to reform the permitting process before the end of the year, they may not get a chance to revisit it for a long time.  

Meanwhile, experts predict that interstate squabbling over where transmission lines can go and who should shoulder their costs will continue to jeopardize new renewable energy projects as the nation scrambles to pump its patchwork of power grids full of renewable energy and make the tardy transition away from fossil fuels. “If you have an interstate transmission line, any state that that line is going through can veto the project,” John Larsen, who leads U.S. energy system and climate policy research for the independent research firm the Rhodium Group, told Grist. “It happens all the time.” 

The ease with which a state can nix another state’s transmission line could derail the nation’s green aspirations and even undermine the historic climate change bill Congress passed in August, the Inflation Reduction Act. The Rhodium Group estimates that nearly a quarter of the emissions reductions that are expected to take place by 2030 won’t come to fruition if no new transmission is built in the U.S. Other groups say the climate bill would take an even bigger hit without reforms that shorten the review processes for renewable energy projects and spur the construction of new transmission lines.   

Senator Joe Manchin, the conservative Democrat from West Virginia, proposed a plan in late September that would have made the green transition promised by the Inflation Reduction Act happen faster. He aimed to pass a permitting reform bill, legislation that would have prevented states from squabbling over some long-distance, interstate transmission projects and sped up the permitting process for all types of energy projects. But the bill fell apart in the Senate less than a week later after facing opposition from both Republican and progressive lawmakers. 

Some GOP legislators didn’t support it because it was proposed by a Democrat and also because they were loath to hand transmission permitting, something that has long been in states’ remit, over to the federal government. Among progressives, one issue was that Manchin’s bill included a carveout for a natural gas pipeline in West Virginia called the Mountain Valley Pipeline that threatens water resources and communities in Appalachia and would add some 90 million metric tons of emissions to the U.S.’s carbon ledger every year. Another problem was that the bill revised and shortened the process by which federal agencies review the environmental impacts of major and minor infrastructure projects, which environmental justice advocates worried would increase the amount of pollution faced by low-income Black and brown communities. 

But experts say that, despite its drawbacks, lawmakers blew a rare opportunity to address the country’s transmission problem by failing to pass Manchin’s bill. “The United States cannot reach its emissions goals, be a climate leader, or ensure that our energy is clean, affordable, reliable, and secure without permitting reform,” Josh Freed, the senior vice president for climate and energy at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Third Way, told Grist. 

Some Democratic members of Congress think so, too. “The good outweighed the bad, and there was definitely bad,” Sean Casten, a Democratic U.S. representative from Illinois, told Grist, referring to Manchin’s bill. (Prior to running for office, Casten occasionally wrote blog posts for Grist between 2007 and 2014.) Most Democratic senators — including another Democratic climate hawk, Brian Schatz of Hawaii — appeared prepared to pass the legislation, too.

Members of both political parties have bemoaned the barriers to expeditious permitting, but Congress rarely takes up legislation to reform the process. Larsen, who has been tracking these types of bills for decades now, said that, prior to Manchin’s bill, Congress had only seriously considered permitting reform twice in the past 20 years — first, in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and then again in last year’s bipartisan infrastructure bill. Both laws tweaked the nation’s permitting rules, but neither resulted in the federal government taking control of the permitting process for transmission lines, which is, in Larsen’s view, the biggest permitting obstacle to the renewable energy transition. 

Manchin’s bill, if it had passed, would have allowed FERC to permit some long-distance lines that are “consistent with the public interest,” in addition to simplifying the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, and giving FERC jurisdiction over hydrogen pipelines. “The windows of opportunity for this stuff are very infrequent,” Larsen said. 

But Manchin’s bill would have also made it easier for all types of energy projects to move forward, something that made progressives queasy. Casten said that that was a tradeoff he was willing to take. “My calculus, for better or for worse, is that if you streamline transmission permitting you will bring on clean energy assets at a rate that will economically neuter the fossil energy assets,” he said. In other words, he was comfortable making the gamble that easing the permitting process for transmission would result in large-scale renewable energy deployment. Eventually, renewables would become so cheap that new fossil fuel infrastructure wouldn’t be necessary. 

Manchin pulled his bill from the government spending package it was attached to before senators could vote on it, knowing he didn’t have the Republican votes he needed to make it happen. In the coming weeks, experts anticipate that he could try to hitch a new version of the bill to an existing legislative package and pass it that way before the end of this congressional session. The only two viable candidates are the omnibus spending bill, a big package of appropriations bills, and the National Defense Authorization Act, the NDAA, which funds the military through the 2023 fiscal year. Congress will turn to those sometime between the midterm elections and the end of this year, the period known as a “lame-duck session.” 

But there are risks to attaching permitting reform to one of these other bills, especially the NDAA, Casten said. Manchin will likely work with Republicans to come up with a new permitting reform bill that has their support, and that version of the bill could gut the National Environmental Policy Act, leading to the approval of infrastructure projects without adequate environmental reviews, or include provisions that allow states to drill for oil and gas on federal land within their state borders with less oversight than is currently in place. Such a bill already exists — it was proposed by Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito, Manchin’s fellow senator from West Virginia — but it failed to pass after Democrats blocked it. It’ll be much harder for Democrats to nix a new permitting bill if it is attached to the NDAA because voting against military spending is politically unpopular.

“If there is a package that the Senate can accept in the NDAA, it will in all likelihood be worse,” Casten said. “How many Democrats are going to peel off over permitting and shut down military spending? That’s a really politically hard question.”

There’s also a scenario in which Republicans take back one or both houses of Congress next week and permitting reform is revisited under their terms. On Tuesday, Politico reported that House Republicans are planning an energy agenda that centers around much more aggressive permitting reforms that would significantly shorten environmental reviews for all types of energy projects. But they’re unlikely to be successful in the next two years. 

“In the scenario where we lose one chamber, I’m not sure you do any of this,” Casten said. “For all the lip service Republicans pay to oil and gas permitting reform and NEPA repeal, they won’t have a White House that will sign off on it.” 

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. “We’re 28 years away from 2050,” Larsen, from Rhodium, said. “The longer we wait the less it’ll help.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Transmission impossible: Are Democrats punting on permitting reform? on Nov 2, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Study: Los Angeles’ major flood risk is much higher than previously thought

Wed, 11/02/2022 - 03:00

When it comes to storm damage, Los Angeles County may not be the first place that comes to mind. But according to a new study, the area’s “hundred-year” flood risk is far greater than what the federal government currently estimates — and a disproportionate danger for Black residents in certain key areas. 

The Federal Emergency Management Agency considers a relatively small section of L.A. County to be at high risk of flooding. Researchers estimated that these tracts — mostly along the coast and around Lake Los Angeles — are home to just over 23,000 people. These zones would be especially vulnerable during a so-called “100-year flood” — an event with a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year. But while FEMA only bases its assessment on potential flooding along rivers and coasts, a team at the University of California, Irvine identified additional high-risk areas based on the flash flooding caused by rainfall. This inclusion, they argued, is crucial, as global warming will increase the volume of runoff, and there’s often insufficient drainage in urban areas. 

According to the resulting analysis, published Monday in Nature, up to 874,000 people in the county could be exposed to a similar level of flood risk — a nearly 40-fold increase from the population estimate based on government assessments. 

And it may not just be L.A. County that is vastly underestimating its flood risk: “Across the U.S., we witnessed one city after the other get hit by flooding and be seemingly unprepared for the amount of flooding that happens,” said Brett Sanders, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Irvine and the study’s lead author. 

In addition to noting the increased risk, Sanders said it is crucial to understand who within a community is most exposed to these types of events and may face the longest road to recovery. The team at UC Irvine measured the likelihood of different groups in L.A County experiencing each type of flooding — coastal, river, and flash flooding — based on measures of vulnerability, such as race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. 

The researchers found that the county’s non-Hispanic Black residents are 79 percent more likely than non-Hispanic white residents to be exposed to flooding greater than 100 centimeters, roughly three feet. Hispanic residents are 17 percent more likely to be exposed to these levels of flooding when compared to non-Hispanic white residents, and Asian residents are 11 percent more at risk.

The hope, Sanders said, is for communities across the country to replicate this type of analysis in order to better understand where governments should focus flood mitigation or recovery efforts.

These flood events “wreak a lot of havoc,” he said, adding that federal flood assistance programs often fail to reach those who need it most. That’s because those programs often look to states, which in turn often distribute support to communities that already have the resources to advocate for it.  

“If you’re living paycheck to paycheck, and you’re renting your apartment — your employer may go out of business, your housing may be unlivable, and you’ll quickly find your life really upended and unable to recover,” Sanders said. “We have a problem in the U.S. because the most vulnerable communities have no resources and have very little expertise to ask for help. So we don’t know where the hotspots of vulnerability are across the United States. We only know of and hear from the communities that have resources to ask for help.”

Sanders and his team have made their data and analysis public to encourage communities around the country to replicate their model to better understand urban flood risk on a neighborhood level. 

Still, “this type of tool can’t be the last work on where money needs to go,” he said.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Study: Los Angeles’ major flood risk is much higher than previously thought on Nov 2, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

A new tax credit for biogas could be a boon to factory farms

Tue, 11/01/2022 - 03:45

When Maria Payan’s son was screened for cancer, she knew he had to leave home. 

The Payan family lived in Delta, Pennsylvania, a rural community of fewer than 1,000 people near the southern edge of the state, bordering Maryland. Payan, a Pennsylvania native, said she wanted her son Michael to grow up in a small, idyllic community like she did when she was young, making Delta an attractive place to raise a family. 

Then the farm across the road changed hands and became a concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO, home to thousands of poultry and cattle, churning out a steady supply of manure and animal waste. 

“It just changes your entire life,“ Payan told Grist. “Kids can’t play outside. You have to call them inside with the level of stench because you understand it’s not just odors.”

The proliferation of CAFOs across the country has harmed the quality of life for neighboring small communities for decades, with environmental groups now suing the Environmental Protection Agency over the agency’s failure to regulate groundwater pollution stemming from factory farms. 

When a farm produces massive amounts of animal waste, the waste must go somewhere. Generally, farms have pits of manure that hold the waste, uncovered and outdoors, which increase methane emissions and contribute to more ammonia in the air, as well as pollution from nitrates and phosphorus. The waste also contains hydrogen sulfide, a chemical that causes a strong odor and inflammation in the eyes, skin, and lungs.

Some of these massive farms cash in on fuel from this waste, known as biogas.

When food and animal waste are deprived of oxygen, which occurs in landfills and manure lagoons, a natural process known as anaerobic digestion occurs. Bacteria consume the waste products and eventually release methane, a widely used natural gas. The process occurs on farms inside air-tight containers known as digesters. 

These digesters capture methane that would otherwise be emitted into the atmosphere, making biogas one avenue to reduce methane emissions. The burning of methane does release carbon into the atmosphere, but the use of biogas for energy now allows the nation to cut the equivalent of carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to taking 1.3 million cars off the road in a year.

The energy production process causes farmers to enclose or cover manure pits, but just because the manure isn’t visible doesn’t mean it isn’t causing problems.

In rural areas, well water is a primary source of drinking water for residents, and nitrate contamination from animal waste has been linked to a variety of cancers as well as infant death and miscarriages.

Payan said she remembers seeing her son’s body covered in red, irritated wounds after taking a shower, which exposed him to the chemicals found in the region’s groundwater. 

The Payan family moved to Sussex County, Delaware soon after to get away from CAFO pollution, but the industry has exploded throughout the region. Payan, who now works with the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, said a “gold rush” of more massive farms is popping up in Delaware, with facilities affecting the quality of life for families in this rural county, which has a large Black and Latino population. 

“It’s got to stop. We can’t just do business as usual,” Payan said.  

But based on this year’s historic climate legislation package, biogas is set to boom. 

Maria Payan, formerly of Delta, Pennsylvania, stands next to the Delta farm her family moved away from after its operations began polluting the community. Payan, who participated in the documentary “Right to Harm,” now advocates against factory farms and biogas in the northeast region. “Right to Harm” / Hourglass Films

The Inflation Reduction Act, signed into law this past August, includes a sweeping $369 billion investment in various clean energy technologies and credits for consumers to purchase greener technologies. One of those industries is biogas, an energy source that captures methane emissions from large-scale farms. Biogas facilities, which are billed as a “renewable energy source” in the industry, will receive various tax credits and investments from this legislation, prompting industry leaders to look into expanding and constructing facilities across the country. 

“It’s almost giddy,” said Timothy Baye, professor of Business Development and State Energy specialist at the University of Wisconsin. “It’s like waking up not expecting Christmas and finding a Christmas tree.”

Animal waste, like cow manure, and agriculture have been identified as significant contributors to the planet’s warming temperatures, with agriculture accounting for 24 percent of global emissions of carbon, methane, and other gasses. Over 100 countries have signed a pledge to cut global methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030. Methane emissions also come from the fossil fuel industry and have seen historic rises in recent years.

The biogas industry has grown exponentially over the past two decades, primarily thanks to California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard, which was adopted in 2006. The standard created a market for “low-carbon and renewable alternatives” to gasoline and diesel, driving new biogas operations around the country. According to the EPA, electricity generated from biogas more than doubled between 2010 and 2020.

The IRA will give tax credits of up to 30 percent — the same investments given to large clean industries like solar and wind — to biogas facilities built by the beginning of 2025. In addition, this legislative package will also invest roughly $2 billion in the United States Department of Agriculture’s Rural Energy for America Program, or REAP, which provides loans and grants to farmers and businesses in the energy efficiency and renewable energy sector, which includes biogas facilities. 

In October, a bipartisan group of Senators from across the Midwest and Great Plains sent a letter to the EPA, urging more pathways for “electricity generated from biogas” to be brought to the energy market. 

Apart from the IRA, the Biden administration has made biogas a focal point of its clean energy goals, with the planned creation of new public-private partnerships to encourage more biogas facilities as a part of its Methane Emissions Reduction Action Plan

When food and animal waste are deprived of oxygen, a natural process known as anaerobic digestion occurs and eventually creates methane. The gas is captured on farms inside these air-tight containers known as digesters. Faba-Photography / Getty Images

“The biggest impact that the IRA has had on the industry is it has started to levelized the playing field among different renewable energy technologies,” Patrick Serfass, executive director of the American Biogas Council, told Grist. 

Serfass said the industry is at a similar moment that both wind and solar were years ago. When a windfall of federal funding helped those sectors in years past, the industries exploded. Since then, he said those involved in the renewable energy sector have looked to Congress to create a “more fair marketplace” for biogas plants to compete in selling and making renewable energy. 

“(The IRA) has helped to get more biogas systems developed, and if you care about reducing carbon emissions and producing renewable energy, then that’s a really good thing,” Serfass said. 

States with large agricultural sectors are likely to see an increase in biogas facilities, but biogas is not just dependent on animal manure. Landfills and wastewater treatment plants also make up a large portion of the industry. California, Texas, and North Carolina have the biggest potential to make biogas, as estimated by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

This month, a $25 million loan project in Stanislaus County, California, which includes the city of Modesto, was approved. The funding, part of REAP, will provide loans for dairy farms in the region to construct six biogas facilities to connect to a local ethanol plant. Additionally, the loans will also fund natural gas pipeline projects, commonly used in the biogas industry as a way to move the created gas from farms to a refinery without the need for large tanker trucks and costly shipping. 

Communities that already live with large animal farms and biogas facilities could be a cautionary tale for regions that are expanding or building more digesters. In counties across southeastern North Carolina, predominantly Black and low-income communities have been fighting against the state’s massive hog industry-turned biogas producers for years.

Dr. Sacoby Wilson, a leading expert on environmental justice for rural and agricultural communities, said biogas investments may help decrease methane emissions, but neighboring residents are still exposed to a variety of compounding health hazards. 

“They’re not getting the co-benefits that supposedly come from capturing methane, burning methane, or digesting waste,” Wilson told Grist.

Wilson said that biogas is not a clean energy source. While he appreciates the Biden administration’s recent advancements and commitments to environmental justice, the massive funding push for biogas inside the IRA is “one step forward and two steps back.” 

Read Next Making fuel from pig poop sounds exciting — unless you live nearby

He said there should be more significant investments in solutions to the source problems of methane emissions, such as massive agricultural operations that have grown across the country, rather than propping up an industry that relies on destructive practices. 

“Why not invest in sustainable, regenerative agriculture?,” Wilson said, “which will actually be more beneficial to local communities, to the local economy.”

Agriculturally focused states are seeing increased pushes for more manure digester facilities. Greenleaf, Wisconsin, an unincorporated community less than 20 miles south of Green Bay, is now home to a massive digester facility. The new facility claims to be among the largest in the nation, converting nearly a million gallons of manure into methane daily. The gas produced here will be pumped into a national pipeline system and used to fuel natural gas vehicle requirements in states on the other side of the country, like California and Oregon. 

Early this year, the prospect of a new digester in Rock Valley, Iowa, was heralded as a sustainable solution for nearby farming communities in the northwest corner of the state. But soon after it opened, the facility leaked 376,000 gallons of manure into nearby waters

“What we’re seeing is essentially factory farm, biogas, and anaerobic digesters being used in tandem with large factory farm operations, which obviously is raising a lot of concern and opposition from communities,” John Aspray, a Food & Water Watch senior organizer in the state, told Grist.

The Bloody Run Creek, also in the northern part of the state, has experienced increased farm run-off from a digester-turned-large animal operation in recent years. Iowa is now seeing an increase in digesters, with nine new facilities granted permitting last year and seven existing ones approved for expansion. State legislators have tried to curb nitrate pollution from agriculture by proposing a ban on new CAFOs, but just last year, state officials incentivized the creation of more digesters at large-scale farms with state funding. 

“It’s not going to revolutionize agriculture in a way that makes it more sustainable,” Aspray said. “These are a false solution to climate change.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline A new tax credit for biogas could be a boon to factory farms on Nov 1, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

In Brazil, Lula vows to halt deforestation — but it won’t be easy

Tue, 11/01/2022 - 03:30

Celebrations broke out across Brazil on Sunday when, after a divisive race, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s former president representing the Workers Party, ousted far-right President Jair Bolsonaro in one of the most significant elections in Latin American history. 

For many Brazilians, Bolsonaro’s defeat represents a rejection of the explicit anti-Indigenous, anti-environmental agenda he enacted while in office. Often referred to as the “Trump of the tropics” for his racist rhetoric, pro-corporate policies, and open attacks on democratic institutions, Bolsonaro gutted environmental enforcement agencies and pushed for mining and agribusiness in the Amazon. 

Bolsonaro has yet to formally concede, and fears that he will claim election fraud linger — truckers have been blocking highways in protest of the vote — but so far many of Lula’s opponents seem to tacitly accept the results.

Environmentalists say Lula’s victory is a chance to reduce deforestation in the Amazon, which skyrocketed to historic heights under Bolsonaro, and reestablish Brazil’s reputation as a leader on climate change. But it won’t be an easy task. 

Bolsonaro has two months left in office to carry out what opponents are calling his last-ditch “destruction package” — a suite of at least seven bills that include granting amnesty for land grabbing, restricting the environmental licensing process, and weakening pesticide regulation. The administration is attempting to push the bills through before the end of Bolsonaro’s term.   

“Right now there is dangerous abuse of law happening in Congress,” Suely Araújo, a public policy expert who ran Brazil’s environmental agency, Ibama, from 2016 to 2018, told Grist. “We’ve been fighting the Bolsonaro government for four years and we are in the final part of this, but we must stay alert. If they want to vote this through, they have time.”

Araújo added that the bills contain setbacks in environmental law that violate the rights of Indigenous peoples and the right to an ecologically balanced environment as guaranteed by the Brazilian constitution.

Lula also enters office at a time when agribusiness, miners, and organized crime in the Amazon are emboldened after years of Bolsonaro rhetoric and policies. On top of this, while leftists took the presidential race this weekend, many local Amazonian regions elected right-wing, pro-agribusiness leaders and Bolsonaro received a majority vote in over half of Brazil’s Amazonian states. Lula, who ran on a platform of rebuilding environmental agencies and fighting deforestation, will have to navigate the interests of Bolsonaro supporters in local governments as well as in Congress.

Truckers and other protesters blocked some highways in Brazil on Monday in protest over the electoral defeat of far right-wing Bolsonaro to leftist Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Mauro Pimentel/AFP via Getty Images

Lula has promised to update Brazil’s climate goals to steer the country back in line with the Paris Agreement. He has also committed to a list of climate proposals put forth by Marina Silva, the most prominent environmental activist in Brazil who served as his former environment minister. In his first speech as president-elect late Sunday night, he reiterated his strong support for zero deforestation in the Amazon. “Brazil is ready to resume its leading role in the fight against the climate crisis,” he told a crowd of supporters in São Paulo, “protecting all our biomes, especially the Amazon Forest.” 

Carrying out that pledge would likely involve restoring cooperation with Norway and Germany on the Amazon Fund, which contains more than $3 billion for the forest’s protection left untouched since the start of 2019, when Bolsonaro disbanded the fund’s governing body. It would also involve bringing back some version of the Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Deforestation in the Legal Amazon Region, which includes not only monitoring and law enforcement, but also economic incentives to provide alternatives to deforestation.

The transitioning Bolsonaro government will represent Brazil at the United Nations climate summit, COP27, this month in Egypt. It is likely to emphasize the country’s low-carbon energy sector, which relies mostly on hydropower, and deflect from any questions about Amazon deforestation, which makes Brazil a top six global carbon emitter. But Lula has said he will send his own unofficial delegation, where he will pick up his past history of advocating for climate finance and “loss and damage” funding for developing countries. 

“He has a good team that knows how to do this work,” said Araújo, referencing Lula’s acclaimed record on decreasing deforestation during his prior tenure from 2003 to 2010, when his administration reduced rates by over 80 percent. As Lula develops his environmental agenda, Indigenous leaders and environmental groups are calling for a suite of actions, from removing invaders from the Yanomami Indigenous lands to withdrawing PL 191, a bill that is part of the “destruction package” and would allow for mining in Indigenous territories.

“Bolsonaro’s government implemented a kind of textbook dismantling that paralyzed climate policy,” said Araújo. “The first task will be to rebuild, then to advance.”

The election of Lula marks a swing back to the left, joining Brazil with six other Latin American countries that have voted in leftist leaders in the past four years. Like many of these other newly elected presidents, Lula will have to contend with extreme political division, as reflected in the outcome of the vote, where he won by a slim margin of 50.9 percent. 

Brazil’s national congress has a strong conservative block, with links to producers and agribusiness. Lawmakers maintain some leverage over Brazil’s federal budget, but representatives will also need to stay close to the executive branch to access funding for their bases. “It’s common in Brazil’s history to have conservative representatives change when the government changes, to be close to the one in power,” said Araújo, “and Lula is an expert in political articulation. He is good at making coalitions.”

In his victory speech, Lula tied together ideas of fighting inequality and uniting Brazil during a period of political tumult: “No one is interested in living in a divided country,” he said. “Brazil can no longer live with this… wall of concrete and inequality that separate [us] into unequal parts that do not recognize each other.” 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline In Brazil, Lula vows to halt deforestation — but it won’t be easy on Nov 1, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Feds to Colorado River states: reduce water usage, or we will do it for you

Tue, 11/01/2022 - 03:15

This story is part of the Grist series Parched, an in-depth look at how climate change-fueled drought is reshaping communities, economies, and ecosystems.

In theory, the federal government can unilaterally cut water deliveries from the Colorado River’s two main reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which release more than 2 trillion gallons of water to farms and cities across the Southwest each year. In reality, this has never happened: Previous cuts have always been negotiated between the federal government and the seven states that use the river. 

Late last week, however, the federal government sent its strongest signal yet that it is willing to single-handedly impose water cuts on the Colorado for the first time in history, as the U.S. West stares down the consequences of a climate-change-fueled megadrought that has parched the river.

The Department of the Interior, the federal agency that manages water in the Colorado River basin, announced on Friday that it would look into changing the rules for how it operates Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which are located in southern Utah and southern Nevada, respectively. This would pave the way for the department to impose sharp cuts on major water users in Arizona, Nevada, California, and Mexico, which receives water pursuant to a 1944 treaty.

In effect, the letter is a formal warning to the river states, telling them that if they fail to make the major cuts necessary to prevent the reservoirs from bottoming out, the feds won’t hesitate to unilaterally cut their water deliveries to do so.

The Interior Department said in its Friday letter that it would conduct an environmental review before changing the rules to impose new cuts on the states. This will give states one more chance to come up with their own voluntary reductions before the government enacts its own. According to John Fleck, a professor of water policy at the University of New Mexico, the upshot of all this is that unprecedented water reductions are all but guaranteed next year.

“Whether those cuts are imposed by a government action, or voluntary action by the states, or the fact that the reservoirs are fucking empty, they will happen,” he told Grist.

The new review comes after months of tense negotiations between the federal government and the seven basin states: California, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Nevada, and Arizona. Earlier this year, as water levels in Lakes Powell and Mead fell to historic lows, officials at the Interior Department’s Bureau of Reclamation ordered states to reduce their water consumption. The Bureau wanted a total reduction of between 2 and 4 million acre-feet — roughly a third of all water usage on the river.

The states have not even come close to meeting that goal. Major water users in California, which is the thirstiest of the seven states by far, agreed last month to cut water withdrawals by about 400,000 acre-feet, a decision that will have major implications for the agriculture-heavy Imperial Valley as well as the Los Angeles metro area. Arizona has reduced its Colorado usage over the past two years in compliance with pre-existing drought restrictions from the feds. The four states that comprise the river’s “upper basin” — Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Wyoming — have not announced any concrete steps to cut their water usage. 

Meanwhile, the outlook for the river’s two main reservoirs has continued to worsen. As runoff from melting snow in the northern Rocky Mountains works its way down through the Colorado River’s tributaries and into the river’s mainstem, the Bureau of Reclamation stores this water in Lake Powell, which sits on the border of Utah and Arizona. The Bureau then releases some of this water further down the river to Lake Mead in Nevada, and then further on to water users in the Southwest. 

The ongoing, two-decade drought has reduced overall precipitation and evaporated more Rockies snowmelt before it can reach the river, which has reduced inflow into both reservoirs. They now sit three-quarters empty, and the most recent federal projections show that they could each decline below a critical threshold in the next two years. In the worst scenarios, it’s possible that the reservoir dams might cease to generate hydropower, or that the water level in the reservoirs would fall lower than the pipes that release it from the dams. This would make it impossible for the Bureau to move water through the river system.

The Interior Department’s Friday announcement brought home the gravity of the situation, albeit in somewhat bureaucratic language.

“The Department currently lacks analyzed alternatives and measures that may be necessary to address such projected conditions,” wrote Tommy Beaudreau, the department’s deputy secretary. He added that the conditions “pose unacceptable risks” to the river system, and that a solution needs to be “expeditiously developed.”

The federal government technically has the authority to make changes to the amount of water it releases from the reservoirs without consulting the states, but it has never had to test that authority: the current shortage guidelines were the product of a yearslong negotiation process between the Interior Department and the states. The feds are now threatening to alter that agreement on their own, and the Interior Department’s announcement helps lay the groundwork for such an intervention. If the government does modify its guidelines, it could set a new threshold for when to stop releasing water from Lakes Powell and Mead, imposing deeper and earlier cuts than states have endured so far. The review process puts the feds on firmer legal footing in case a state water user sues over the new reductions.

The losers in such a scenario would be the lower basin states — California, Nevada, and Arizona — which rely on water that the government releases from Lake Mead, as well as Mexico, where decades of overuse caused the river delta to disappear during the twentieth century. The states use the bulk of this water for agriculture, but a significant share also flows to major cities. The upper basin states draw water from the river before it reaches the reservoir, so they would be insulated from changes to the reservoir rules.

The government’s review won’t conclude until next summer, but new rules could take effect immediately, which means painful new cuts may arrive in the Southwest as the region’s farmers are preparing for peak growing season.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Feds to Colorado River states: reduce water usage, or we will do it for you on Nov 1, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Democrats passed a major climate bill. Why aren’t more midterms ads touting it?

Mon, 10/31/2022 - 03:30

In the weeks leading up to the midterm election on November 8, environmental groups have been trying to get the attention of the 2 million Americans who care about climate change but don’t usually vote. Their advertisements are appearing on Facebook feeds, popping up on Hulu, and getting delivered to mailboxes week after week. The main message? Your representative finally did something about climate change this year, so you should vote to keep them in office. 

“It’s a real holy sh*t moment — in a good way,” says the narrator in an ad for Senator Mark Kelly, a Democrat from Arizona. “Mark Kelly met the moment. Send him back.”

This summer, for the first time in history, Democrats managed to pass wide-reaching federal legislation to tackle climate change, putting $369 billion toward clean energy tax credits. Some think the measures in the bill could reduce emissions 40 percent below 2005 levels by the end of the decade. The League of Conservation Voters and Climate Power Action, two advocacy groups, have emphasized this point in their $15 million “Climate Voters Mobilization” campaign aimed at potential voters around the country, targeting tight races in Arizona, New Hampshire, Kansas, Georgia, Washington, and more than a dozen other states.

But in an election in which control of Congress is at stake, the Climate Voters Mobilization campaign is the exception. Most mainstream advertisements fail to mention anything about the overheating planet. The Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade and the threat to abortion rights has dominated Democrats’ messaging. Republicans, meanwhile, have emphasized rising inflation and crime. Some analyses of political campaigning don’t include climate change at all: In the Washington Post’s examination of more than 1,000 midterm ads since Labor Day, it didn’t even land in the 25 most common topics.

This is a reflection of polls showing that other hot-button issues are top of mind for Americans. But increasingly, climate change is making its way up their priority lists, potentially becoming a swayer of elections. This year, environmental groups are counting on climate voters being an important bloc.

“There are now a set of voters out there where climate is a ‘super-motivator’ for them,” said Pete Maysmith, senior vice president of campaigns at the League of Conservation Voters. “That’s the thing that is really going to help get them to the polls.” 

If climate change is becoming such a big deal in elections, where are the rest of the ads touting the groundbreaking legislation that is the Inflation Reduction Act? 

One explanation for the dearth of such messaging is that Americans think of climate action as something only a minority of people want, even if they themselves have been calling for such legislation for years. “There’s a misconception that it’s not as popular as it is,” said Heather Hargreaves, the director of Climate Power Action. A study published this summer found that people vastly underestimated public support for measures such as a carbon tax or a Green New Deal. Respondents imagined that a minority of people (37 to 43 percent) backed such measures, but real-life polling found that the vast majority (66 to 80 percent) actually supported them. 

Politicians may be susceptible to the same misperceptions as the general public: Another study found that congressional staffers underestimated how many people in their districts wanted restrictions on carbon emissions. It only makes sense to campaign on climate action if you think your constituents care.

President Joe Biden gives remarks during an event celebrating the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act on the South Lawn of the White House, September 13, 2022. Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images

Part of the problem is that many people aren’t comfortable talking about climate change. There’s a phenomenon called the “spiral of silence” where people think they’re alone in their concern simply because they don’t hear others saying they’re concerned about it. On top of that, a tiny minority of climate deniers may carry outsized sway in people’s minds, simply because they do speak up.

Consider the growing threat of wildfires in the Western U.S. Many more acres burn compared to 30 years ago, partly because hotter and drier conditions have been spurring bigger, more severe, and longer-lasting fires. “People who don’t really want to grapple with climate change will say, ‘Well, there have always been fires, and there have always been big fires’ — and that’s true,’” said Peter Friederici, a communication professor at Northern Arizona University and the author of the new book Beyond Climate Breakdown: Envisioning New Stories of Radical Hope. “There have been all these ready-made counternarratives that are just sitting there, waiting for us, that encouraged us to think, ‘No, this is really not much of a problem.’”

Climate change can also take a backseat to other problems that appear more visible. For the most part, it doesn’t have “that visceral kick” that immigration, abortion, or the economy does, Friederici said. It’s not something people instinctively react to, like higher gas prices. For most of history, the climate was considered “a backdrop” for dramas with humans as the protagonists. It can be jarring when the background takes center stage. 

The philosopher Timothy Morton has described climate change as a “hyperobject” — something so large that we can’t grasp it in an effective way. “It’s kind of everywhere and nowhere at the same time,” Friederici said. “But on some level, we know it’s everywhere, and it affects everything.” 

Yet people talk about it, for the most part, like they talk about other issues: On the debate stage, the climate merits a quick question to candidates along with topics like the economy and public safety. “That’s where it becomes super politicized,” Friederici said. “‘Do you believe in it or not? Do you think we should get rid of all new fossil fuel exploration or not?’ And so it quickly turns into this political identity marker, rather than continuing to try to see the fullness of what climate change is, which is a really difficult thing to do.”

In previous elections, candidates who supported doing something about climate change sometimes saw their efforts used against them. Democrats are still “haunted” by the 2010 midterm elections, when two dozen members of the House of Representatives who had supported a cap-and-trade bill to limit greenhouse gas emissions were kicked out of their seats after a barrage of attack ads from conservatives.

But the calculus has changed. This election cycle, it’s hard to find Republican ads that skewer Democrats for supporting the Inflation Reduction Act, Hargreaves said. “We know that Republicans would be using that if they thought it was a working message, but it’s not.” In recent years, Republican strategists have worried that climate change could become an “electoral time bomb” because younger voters disapprove of the party’s stance.

For the 2020 election, the League of Conservation Voters ran a campaign to persuade undecided but climate-conscious swing voters to cast their ballots. The organization believes the effort resulted in a 5.6 percent increase in ballots cast for pro-environment candidates, which translates to nearly 90,000 votes.

Over the past decade, more and more people have come to name climate change as a top concern, according to polling by YouGov. In October 2012, only 3 percent of Americans considered it the most important issue facing the United States, compared to 10 percent today — tied with the number concerned about the economy, and beaten only by inflation. A poll conducted by the Washington Post and ABC News in September found that 51 percent of registered voters considered climate change very important, if not one of the most important issues, for their vote.

This rise in concern has coincided with the effects of a warming planet becoming more visible: monster storms, drought, and megafires that blanket parts of the country with smoke. Almost half of Americans now believe that global warming will harm them personally, according to data from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

With this in mind, environmental groups are taking a similar approach to 2020’s ad campaign this year. “We’re not trying to talk to everybody,” Hargreaves said. “We still think climate change messaging works with the vast majority of people, but it works best with a certain subset.” Young people and women are more likely to vote with global warming in mind, as are Black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans

Aside from pointing out the success of the Inflation Reduction Act, the Climate Voters Mobilization’s ads highlighted the urgent need to address the devastation the climate crisis is causing as well as the need to modernize infrastructure to better handle extreme weather. These messages tested well in polling, Hargreaves said, increasing people’s enthusiasm to vote by 7 percent on average, and by 16 percent among Democrats.

“These are voters who we know are with us that are otherwise likely just to not show up,” said Maysmith of the League of Conservation Voters. “They’re likely to stay on the couch. And this is the issue that we have every reason to believe is going to get them off the couch and to the polling place.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Democrats passed a major climate bill. Why aren’t more midterms ads touting it? on Oct 31, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

US unveils $1 billion effort to electrify school buses

Mon, 10/31/2022 - 03:15

Less than 1 percent of the nation’s roughly 500,000 school buses are electric or run on low-emission fuels. That’s about to change. 

Nearly 400 school districts across the United States, including in several Indigenous tribal lands, as well as in Puerto Rico and American Samoa, will receive around $1 billion to purchase new, mostly electric school buses as part of a Biden Administration grant program.

The program aims to reduce children’s exposure to harmful exhaust from diesel buses that serve their schools and communities. It is also part of a broader effort by the Biden Administration to address climate change and environmental justice by making it easier for vulnerable communities to have access to zero-emission vehicles.  

The grant program’s funds come from $5 billion that the EPA received as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. With the grant money, recipient school districts will be able to purchase nearly 2,300 electric buses, quadrupling the nation’s current number. While these lower-polluting buses would make up a small portion of school bus fleets, environmental and public health advocates argue that the positive impacts on children’s health would be profound.

In a press release, WE ACT for Environmental Justice, a Harlem-based organization, praised Wednesday’s announcement and the program’s reach, saying that it would improve air quality and “reduce children’s exposure to asthma-causing pollutants while also protecting the health of drivers and the communities these buses drive through.”

The Biden Administration expects many of the new electric buses to be available to the winning school districts by the start of the next school year, with the remainder available by the end of 2023.  

Air pollution remains a major contributor to poor respiratory and cardiovascular health, with vehicles a main culprit. Greenhouse gas emissions from transportation make up the highest portion of total greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., at 27 percent. The World Health Organization estimates that 93 percent of the world’s population breathes air that exceeds its public health guidelines. 

Children are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of poor air quality. A 2021 study found that even brief exposure to air pollution, including wildfire smoke and car exhaust, can alter a child’s DNA and increase their risk of heart and lung problems as adults. 

Seventy percent of students from low-income families take a bus to school, increasing their exposure to diesel exhaust. Children of color, in particular, are more likely to live near heavy transit routes, industrial facilities, and other sources of vehicular and industrial pollution. This is in large part due to historic housing, zoning, and transit policies that left Black and Brown communities with few other options. As a result, children of color have higher rates of asthma and other respiratory illnesses than white children. 

Air pollution also poses other unexpected health risks to children of color. A 2017 study on Latino children in low-income neighborhoods in Los Angeles found that exposure to air pollution during childhood may cause damage to the pancreas — the organ that produces insulin, increasing their likelihood of becoming obese and developing Type 2 diabetes.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline US unveils $1 billion effort to electrify school buses on Oct 31, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

A decade after Sandy, Manhattan’s flood barrier is finally in sight — sort of

Fri, 10/28/2022 - 03:45

When Superstorm Sandy made landfall on October 29, 2012, it pushed 13 feet of storm surge into New York City’s harbor, sweeping across the Brooklyn and Queens waterfronts and wiping entire neighborhoods off the map in Staten Island. Flooding knocked out power in Lower Manhattan, plunging downtown into near-total darkness as water rushed through the streets. The storm caused $19 billion in damages in the city alone, and it was clear that future storms could be even worse unless something changed.

Less than a year later, the Obama administration unveiled a massive federal initiative to ensure that the city not only recovered from Sandy, but built back better. The initiative, dubbed Rebuild by Design, promised to funnel money toward long-term climate adaptation measures in the hardest-hit areas, supplementing the usual barrage of disaster aid with money earmarked for forward-looking projects. 

To say that officials aimed high would be an understatement. The Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, which managed the initiative, threw its weight behind an idea called the “Big U.” The plan, drafted by the firm of Danish celebrity architect Bjarke Ingels, proposed to wrap the island of Manhattan, the financial and cultural capital of the United States, in miles of berms and artificial shorelines, creating a huge grassy shield that would both increase urban green space and defend the city from storm surge. The feds doled out an eye-popping $335 million for the first phase of the project, which soon captured the public’s imagination, in part thanks to iconic renderings from Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) that showed a green paradise enfolding Manhattan. Ingels referred to it as “the love-child of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs.” 

If you stand in Battery Park on the southern tip of Manhattan today, 10 years after Sandy, it might be hard to imagine that the city is about to make the Big U vision a reality. Look a little closer, though, and there are signs of progress. Multiple pieces of the borough’s flood barrier have broken ground in the past year, and almost all the money for the system has been secured, with only a few pieces left to fund. After years of planning, design, and debate, the physical structure is starting to take shape.

“Once you start to see it in real life, it feels totally different,” said Amy Chester, the managing director of Rebuild by Design, which has gone on to help other cities plan resilience projects. “I worked in city government forever, and I didn’t expect all these projects to happen, but it happened.”

An early rendering of the Big U berm structure at the Battery. The plan first emerged in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. Courtesy of Bjarke Ingels Group

The Big U was a test case for large-scale climate adaptation. It wagered that cities could use a disaster like Sandy as a moment to rethink their relationship with nature, rather than just rebuild what had existed before. 

In some ways, the bet paid off. The Big U project did manage to secure funding, and it is now being built, albeit years behind schedule and in modified form. After almost a decade of design work and public engagement, the city has proven that unconventional adaptation projects can work, and that cities can look beyond traditional flood walls and levees. 

In another sense, though, the Big U is a reality check for these big projects. The project was kickstarted thanks to a rush of post-disaster money from a presidential administration that prioritized adaptation, but it couldn’t have gotten to this point without New York City’s unparalleled local resources. As Chester puts it, New York is a “different financial animal” than the rest of the country. Whereas other jurisdictions rely heavily on the federal government to fund big infrastructure projects, the city can also command huge amounts of municipal and state funding, which helps open the door for more ambitious and forward-looking projects. Absent a revamp of how the federal government funds climate adaptation, such projects will continue to remain out of reach for most cities. 

“There are so many communities across the coastline including other major cities like Houston, Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston, Miami, Tampa,” said Linda Shi, an assistant professor of city planning at Cornell University who studies climate adaptation. “Are they going to see such sums of money? And then what about much smaller municipalities? They for sure are not going to see such levels of investment. That’s a real challenge, to think about how our infrastructure spending is going to meet that gap.”

The first task in the Big U project was to break Ingels’s dramatic vision into achievable chunks.

The $335 million that the city received from HUD went to fund a huge segment along the east side of Manhattan, one of the city’s hardest hit areas by the storm. For centuries, this part of the island consisted mostly of wetlands, before developers filled it in to make room for dense residential neighborhoods and public housing developments. When Sandy hit New York, its storm surge sought out these historical low-lying stretches, but the tidal channels and mudflats that had once absorbed excess water were long gone, replaced by concrete buildings and streets.

Ingels’s initial plan for the east side called for a massive tiered berm that would slope up from the water at East River Park, but this vision soon hit a roadblock: Officials in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration determined that building the berm would be too disruptive for a nearby highway — the busy FDR Drive — and a subsurface power line owned by the utility ConEd. Instead they decided to elevate the whole park on eight feet of artificial fill. But the city made a few serious missteps in communicating with locals about the new plan, and a coalition of locals, artists, and activists soon banded together to oppose it, arguing that it would remove trees and reduce access to a valuable community space. 

Despite the public relations nightmare, the city began construction work on the east side project in earnest late last year, and has since ripped up about half the park. Dozens of trucks, cranes, and backhoes now fill the site, laying the groundwork for the fill that will raise it off the ground. The city now expects the project to be complete in 2026.

Activists chain themselves around a tree at City Hall Park in New York City demanding then-City Council Speaker Corey Johnson to hold an immediate Oversight Hearing on the East River Park flood project. Erik McGregor / LightRocket via Getty Images

There’s a similar project in the works on the opposite shore of Manhattan, in an area called Battery Park City. Built in the 1970s on artificial land that extends out into the Hudson River, the neighborhood is governed by a state authority that can issue its own bonds, allowing local leaders to fund an $800 million resilience scheme to construct another segment of the Big U. As in East River Park, the plan here is to create a tiered series of elevated lawns that will stop coastal flooding from pushing inland.

But just like across town, this plan is not going over well with some locals, who have objected to the fact that it will close the park for multiple years. Earlier this summer, the campaigners attracted the attention of Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin, who urged the state to pause construction until local concerns are heard. 

“Residents have pointed out that Wagner Park didn’t experience severe flooding during Superstorm Sandy,” said Zeldin in a statement to the press. “Others have raised concerns about the exorbitant cost.” A group of locals is pushing an alternative design for the park, but crews are still expected to begin construction in the coming weeks. 

The third and most difficult segment of the waterfront to protect is the two-mile stretch between these two other projects: the southern edge of Manhattan, stretching from lower Battery Park City past Wall Street and up toward the East Side. This stretch of shoreline is home to the towering skyscrapers of the Financial District, the offramps of the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, the packed historic neighborhood around the South Street Seaport, and another dense cluster of high-rise housing developments, not to mention a thicket of critical transportation infrastructure, including the elevated FDR Drive expressway and a subterranean car tunnel to Brooklyn.

Because the area is so overbuilt, with only a few dozen feet of free space between the water’s edge and the nearest street or building, the city doesn’t have the room to build big flood walls or berms like the ones it’s constructing in East River Park. Much of the waterfront territory in the neighborhood sits on concrete piles, which means it likely couldn’t support the two-story structure needed to protect the low-lying Financial District from a big storm event; the dense network of underground transportation and power infrastructure only further complicates such an effort. Plus, many of the buildings in the Seaport district are designated historic landmarks, making it even harder to build something new in their midst.

Faced with all these challenges, designers had to get creative. In one part of the problem area, near the dense Two Bridges neighborhood, the city chose a novel technological solution from the original Big U plan: a $500 million array of deployable flood walls that can flip up out of the ground during storm surge events, creating a temporary water barrier. Mayor Eric Adams broke ground on that project this week, and it is also expected to finish in 2026. Further down the shore, the city hopes to extend an artificial shoreline out into the water, creating a two-tiered berm with one segment that soars fifteen feet into the air and another that sweeps down toward the river.

An early rendering of flip-down flood walls along the waterfront in Lower Manhattan, first proposed in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. A modified version of the project is now under construction in Lower Manhattan. Courtesy of Bjarke Ingels Group

Finding the funds for this last piece may be tricky. Much of the money for the flip-up flood walls arrived six years ago thanks to another Obama-era grant program that funded novel resilience strategies, but the berm around the Seaport will cost around $3.6 billion, according to the city’s latest estimates, and will take more than a decade to complete. Unless the city is hit by another Sandy, there likely won’t be another huge pile of post-disaster federal money for this project, which raises questions about how the city will pay for it. A recent federal grant to help support the project provided only $50 million, at most 1 percent of the total cost of the project.

Victor Papa, the president of the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, which represents residents in the area, said he’s optimistic the project will come to fruition, and said he wasn’t disturbed by the long timeline. 

“We’re feeling very confident,” he told Grist. “I am of the mind that when a project affects thousands of people, in thousands of housing units, that is not an overnight process, that’s a process that’s going to have a learning curve. I think the city did a good job in their design and their implementation.”

Even with most of the funding locked down, the trajectory for finishing the Big U is difficult to predict. The construction timeline for the rest of the project stretches to the end of the decade and beyond, and that’s assuming everything goes well. Future mayors may have to contend with controversy over construction impacts and cost overruns. The long timeline may also jeopardize the effectiveness of the project: the flip-up flood gates, for instance, only provide protection against the sea-level rise that will occur by 2050, which could make them inadequate as little as two decades after they are completed. There’s also the risk that another Sandy could strike while the city is still building the Big U, setting the timeline back even further.

“I think some of the estimates on time that the city put out right after Sandy were the absolute best-case scenario, and not everything turned out to be best case,” said Daniel Zarrilli, a special advisor on climate and sustainability at Columbia University who served as a climate policy advisor to Mayors Michael Bloomberg and de Blasio. “These are big, billion-dollar infrastructure projects and things do tend to take time, which is unfortunate, because time is not on our side.”

Submerged cars on Avenue C and 7th Street in Manhattan during the severe flooding caused by Superstorm Sandy. Christos Pathiakis / Getty Images

The current framework is also notable for what it leaves out — the city’s ambitions for the Big U are smaller than the original proposal from the Rebuild by Design days. The original berm structure conceived by Ingels would have extended from 42nd Street on the East Side all the way around the island and up the West Side to 57th Street, but the city has lopped off sections on both sides. Rather than push the project up the sides of the island, the city scaled back its ambitions to the barrier segment it knew it could afford.

The responsibility for protecting the rest of Manhattan and New York City now lies with the U.S Army Corps of Engineers, the nation’s chief builder of flood projects. In most other cities, the Corps might have taken charge of storm surge adaptation from the beginning, drafting an infrastructure project and securing money for it from Congress, but that wasn’t the case in New York. The pot of money the city received from HUD allowed it to pursue the nontraditional vision of the Big U, and leaders later rejected the Corps’ controversial proposal to create a five-mile storm gate across New York Harbor. 

Now, though, the Corps has returned to fill in the gaps: The agency this month unveiled a $52 billion plan to build a series of storm gate structures across the city and in New Jersey as well. One structure would extend deployable flood gates up the West Side of Manhattan, approximating the extent of Ingels’s original scheme. If executed well, the Corps plan would also help bolster flood resilience in vulnerable parts of the city that didn’t receive the same jackpot of HUD money that Lower Manhattan did. There were other ambitious Rebuild by Design ventures for some of these places too, including the Bronx and Staten Island, but none so ambitious as the Big U. On its own, a flood barrier around Lower Manhattan wouldn’t help those areas, and might even push more water toward them during storm surge events. 

“There’s only so much money that the city had, and the federal funding streams allowed us to do some work, but not all of it,” said Zarrilli. For the rest of it, he said, “we need the Army Corps.” 

Even this some-but-not-all achievement would be difficult to replicate in other cities that don’t have New York’s local resources or a pot of recovery money from a friendly presidential administration. Bond measures and federal resilience grants can help fund smaller-scale adaptation projects, but transformative green infrastructure on the scale achieved in Manhattan will likely remain out of reach elsewhere in the United States.

Furthermore, Shi, from Cornell, cautions that new infrastructure can’t be the only way we adapt to climate change. The Big U may be an admirable example of how cities can rebuild for rising seas, but it won’t work unless accompanied by other measures that shift development away from flood zones and help people relocate from the riskiest places. 

“I think there is a certain kind of danger to the siren song that the Big U sings for us, because it is so visually appealing that we might think that it is going to solve the problem on its own,” she said. “But that’s just one kind of innovation. And that same kind of imagination needs to be there in those … non-design spaces in order for all of this to actually pencil out.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline A decade after Sandy, Manhattan’s flood barrier is finally in sight — sort of on Oct 28, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

A NASA satellite launched to detect dust has discovered huge methane leaks

Fri, 10/28/2022 - 03:15

On the evening of July 14, NASA launched the Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation, or EMIT, 250 miles up to perch on the International Space Station. With the satellite’s speed in equilibrium with the Earth’s gravitational pull, the instrument took off into orbit and has been circling our planet once every 90 minutes ever since.

EMIT belongs to a category of equipment known as spaceborne imaging spectrometers and was designed to examine how flurries of airborne, mineral dust on the Earth’s surface affect temperature changes across the globe.

In the three and a half months following EMIT’s launch, the tool has not only successfully mapped out massive dust plumes and their effect on the changing climate, but has also identified another key piece to the global warming puzzle: more than 50 methane “super-emitters,” some of which had previously gone unseen. 

Methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, is a byproduct of decomposing organic material and the leading component of natural gas — the fuel used in power plants as well as in heating and cooking appliances in buildings. In the 20 years after release, methane is estimated to be 80 to 90 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. In 2021, the amount of methane in the atmosphere soared to the highest level on record. And super-emitters — oil fields, pipelines, landfills, animal feedlots, and other facilities that emit methane at unusually high rates — are a major part of the problem. Researchers have estimated that super-emitters account for between 8 and 12 percent of all methane emissions from the oil and gas sector.

The super-emitters that EMIT identified included oil and gas infrastructure east of the port city of Hazar, Turkmenistan, emitting methane at a rate of 111,000 pounds per hour. Off of Carlsbad, New Mexico, the apparatus detected a previously unidentified 2-mile-long plume rising from the Permian Basin, one of the largest oilfields in the world. A waste-processing complex in Iran, also previously unknown to scientists, was found to emit an estimated 18,700 pounds of methane per hour.

Twelve plumes of methane that were detected by NASA’s Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation tool east of Hazar, Turkmenistan, a port city on the Caspian Sea. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Scientists at NASA aren’t the only ones using satellites to track methane leaks. A French geoanalytics company called Kayrros SAS uses a combination of satellite data and algorithms to identify super-emitter sites. In February, researchers from Kayrros and various climate institutions announced that they had used satellite instruments to identify more than 1,800 major releases of methane globally in 2019 and 2020.

While carbon dioxide lingers in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, methane breaks down after about a decade. Due to this timeframe of atmospheric response, a deceleration in the rate of global warming could come to fruition relatively swiftly if the world confronts its methane emissions.  

Last fall, during the annual United Nations climate conference in Scotland, the United States and European Union announced the Global Methane Pledge, an international initiative aiming to slash the world’s methane emissions by 30 percent by the end of this decade. More than 100 countries have signed onto the pledge. Researchers say that slowing methane emissions can be achieved at relatively low cost — for instance, by requiring oil and gas companies to repair leaky equipment and forbidding them from intentionally venting methane into the air. Improving livestock manure management and plugging abandoned oil and gas wells are other strategies that could yield major benefits.

NASA hopes that EMIT can be part of those solutions. “Reining in methane emissions is key to limiting global warming,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement. “This exciting new development will not only help researchers better pinpoint where methane leaks are coming from, but also provide insight on how they can be addressed — quickly.” 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline A NASA satellite launched to detect dust has discovered huge methane leaks on Oct 28, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News


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