Policy

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Europe burning protected trees as clean energy

In this Wednesday, April 1, 2015 photo, Eric Besenfelder, director of facilities for the Coxsackie-Athens Central Schools, holds hardwood pellets used in a wood burning boiler at Athens Elementary School in Athens, N.Y. Financial incentives and technological advances have led a growing number of schools, local government buildings, nature centers and homes to switch from fossil fuels to renewable heat in northern states. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

Lumber from protected forests in Eastern Europe  is helping feed the continent’s insatiable desire for green energy, The New York Times reported. 

Electricity and heat from wood pellets currently counts toward European Union clean energy quotas — even as increased production turns forests in Estonia and Finland from carbon sinks to sources of greenhouse gases, according to the Times. 

But that could change under new legislation that the EU Parliament will vote on next week, which would specify that only pellets pressed from waste products like sawdust would count as green energy.   

Similar issues have arisen from the huge boost in pellet production across the U.S. Southeast — along with pollution from pellet plants and deforestation of vital coastal forests needed for water filtration and storm defense, Slate reported. 

That’s a problem The Wall Street Journal first called attention to nearly a decade ago — when pellet exports were less than a third of what they are now, according to figures from Biomass Magazine.  

Government support for biomass energy has helped make the EU a major driver of U.S. exports, which passed 830,000 metric tons in June, a nearly 40 percent increase from June 2021, according to Biomass Magazine. 

With business booming, industry groups have decried the potential loss of subsidies. But the scientific community largely considers cutting down trees for energy to be a bad move. 

“Using wood deliberately harvested for burning will increase carbon in the atmosphere and warming for decades to centuries,” nearly 800 scientists wrote in a letter to the EU in 2018, last time EU biomass measures were up for a vote. 

Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. We’re Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Send us tips and feedback. A friend forward this newsletter to you? Subscribe here. 

Today we’ll start with three water contamination crises plaguing U.S. cities. Then we’ll turn to Pakistan’s unprecedented monsoons, which are threatening the livelihoods — and lives — of residents. Plus: A call from the United Nations for action on air pollution.

Unsafe drinking water plagues three US cities  

Hundreds of thousands of Americans remain without safe drinking water as crises hit three cities simultaneously.  

  • The concurrent E. coli contamination in Baltimore, toxic levels of arsenic in New York City housing projects and ongoing boil water advisories in Jackson, Miss., all have different immediate causes. 
  • But they ultimately stem from the same core issues that are leading to water crises across America: the intersection of crumbling public infrastructure with a more unstable climate and extreme weather. 

Compound disasters: These overlapping crises also highlight how racial injustice and political discord can make urban water problems worse — and how simple steps like regular monitoring can help keep problems from metastasizing.   

Bacteria in Baltimore: Residents lined up on Wednesday morning to collect safe drinking water from the city’s Department of Public Works, the Baltimore Sun reported. 

More than 100,000 people in West Baltimore were under boil-water advisories after weekend samples revealed dangerous strains of the bacterium E. coli in the water supply, according to the Sun. 
 

That meant a rush for water on Tuesday at places like Price Rite Marketplace. “If stores run out of water, they ain’t going to be calm,” employee Mercedes Thurman said. 
 

One silver lining: Baltimore only caught the E. coli problem early because the city has invested in regular monitoring of tap water, environmental planning professor Marccus Hendricks of University of Maryland told local television station WBFF.

  • The likely cause of the contamination was intrusion from sewage lines into water lines, he added. 

Arsenic in New York: Residents of New York City’s Jacob Riis Houses — a public housing project in Manhattan’s East Village — are also lining up to receive safe drinking water and prepared food after water sampling over Labor Day weekend revealed arsenic in their water,  New York’s Gothamist news site reported on Wednesday. 

Like the impacted residents of Baltimore, the inhabitants of the Jacob Riis Houses are majority Black and brown. 

  • “We’re out here sitting out here in the rain.” tenant association president Daphne Williams said.“We could be at home in our own warm apartments, but we can’t go up and drink our water like the mayor can drink his, in a nice warm place.”  

Added stress: Several tenants said they felt ill, but that nearby urgent care centers didn’t have arsenic tests, Gothamist reported.  

  • “I’m happy I live here. I have a nice apartment. But they gotta tell us the truth about the water,” resident Martha Lozano told the site. 

FLOOD AND DROUGHT THREATEN WATER SUPPLIES 

Climate crises like floods — which led to the ongoing contamination in Jackson, Miss. — are as much a threat to beleaguered urban water systems as drought, NPR reported on Wednesday. 
 

Political division in Jackson: Emergency pumps restored Jackson’s water pressure on Monday, but the city of 150,000 remains under a boil-water advisory.   

These circumstances have sparked another round of finger-pointing by state Republicans like Gov. Tate Reeves and local Democrats like Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba. 

  • On Monday, Reeves blamed city officials for the ongoing water crisis, and said that privatization of the city water treatment infrastructure was “on the table,” The Hill reported. 
  • But Lumumba released a 2020 letter on Tuesday in which the city laid out the problems with its water treatment plant, and requested the funds necessary to fix it — a letter that local officials say the state never responded to, according to Axios. 

What matters: “The residents don’t really care about how we feel about each other when there’s no water coming out of the tap,” Lumumba said in a Tuesday press conference about the tiff with Reeves. 

Pakistan’s biggest lake traps residents in overflow

Pakistan’s largest lake overflowed on Tuesday for at least the third time this week, leaving residents trapped by surging water levels, according to CNN. 

In the past 24 hours alone, 18 people — including eight children — have died, bringing flood-related death totals to 1,343, Reuters reported, citing Pakistan’s National Disaster Management Authority.  

Rerouting water: Lake Manchar — which expanded to an area hundreds of square kilometers wide following a summer of floods — covered nearby villages with several feet of water, according to CNN.  

  • The flooding is due to the combined impacts of a heavy monsoon and melting glaciers.  
  • Pakistani officials had already allowed the lake to overflow twice on Sunday in an attempt to reroute some of the water to less densely populated regions.  
  • Tuesday’s spillage was a natural occurrence.    

Cities at risk: Pakistan is encountering what CNN described as “a desperate race against time to lower water levels at the lake in Sindh,” which is the country’s second most populated province.  

A full-scale breach of Lake Manchar’s banks could end up inundating adjacent cities, CNN reported.  

Water as far as the eye can see: “You wouldn’t believe the scale of destruction there,” Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif told reporters after a visit to Sindh, according to Reuters.  

“It is water everywhere as far as you could see,” Sharif said.  

Climate-induced disaster: As many as 33 million people — out of a population of 220 million — are contending with the impacts of a disaster that officials blame on climate change, Reuters reported. 

  • Hundreds of thousands are homeless.  
  • Economic losses have risen to at least $10 billion. 

UN calls for urgent action on Clean Air Day 

United Nations Under-Secretary-General Inger Andersen called on Wednesday for governments to ramp up regulation, regional cooperation and monitoring efforts to combat air pollution.  

Andersen, who also serves as the executive director of the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP), reminded global citizens that 99 percent of world breathes unsafe air, releasing a statement on International Day of Clean Air for blue skies. 

A human-created paradox: “Every breath we take keeps us alive,” Andersen said. “Every breath we take is killing us.”  

“This is the paradox humanity caused when we created economies and societies that pollute the air,” she added.  

What’s International Day of Clean Air? The United Nations General Assembly designated Sept. 7 as the International Day of Clean Air for blue skies in 2019, with the first such day celebrated in 2020, according to UNEP.  

  • The designation underscores the need to improve air quality to protect human and environmental health.  
  • The annual commemoration aims to build a collaborative community, while encouraging activists to share ideas on social media using the hashtags #WorldCleanAirDay and #TheAirWeShare.  

‘Triple planetary crisis’: Pollution, climate change and biodiversity have come together to create what Anderson described as a “triple planetary crisis” that requires urgent and decisive action.  

Human health at stake: “Air pollution is at the heart of global public health, economy, agriculture, biodiversity, environment and climate crisis,” said a collective statement from the chief scientists of UNEP, the World Health Organization, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the World Meteorological Organization. 

  • “The evidence is overwhelming: exposure to air pollution adversely affects the health of all, but particularly the most vulnerable.”   

What can be done? Andersen pinpointed three priority areas for government action:   

  • Implementing air quality regulations to meet World Health Organization standards. 
  • Measuring air quality with low-cost monitoring equipment and digital technologies. 
  • Prioritizing regional cooperation.  

Preventable and manageable: The chief scientists echoed these sentiments, noting that in regions of the world where strong policies and monitoring systems have been put into place, cities have shown “remarkable decreases in emissions.”  

“The good news is that, while complex and requiring a coordinated government response, air pollution is a preventable and manageable threat,” the scientists stated. 

Water Wednesday 

Millions of Los Angeles County residents face outdoor watering ban, hemp crops can’t withstand Texas drought and the Fertile Crescent becomes less fertile. 

LA County residents asked to pause outdoor watering 

Local officials have asked more than 4 million residents of Los Angeles County to pause outdoor water for the next two weeks, NBC Los Angeles reported. The shutdown is occurring to repair a leaky water pipeline and is affecting households in southern parts of the county.  

Hemp fails Texas farmers amid ongoing drought 

While advocates for hemp cultivation have touted the crop as “a drought-resistant lifeline for farmers,” those who invested in the plant say they have yet to see significant growth, The Texas Tribune reported. “We can grow dryland cotton on a year like this when you never have any success with the dryland hemp crop,” one farmer told the Tribune. 

The cradle of civilization is drying up 

Drought and water conflicts are drying out Iraq’s Fertile Crescent — a rich area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that once served as a principle cradle of Western civilization, and where 8,000 year old forms of irrigation are still used, The Guardian reported. “The green land has been transformed into a barren desert. I don’t remember seeing this in my lifetime,” one millennial farmer told the Guardian. 

Please visit The Hill’s Sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you tomorrow.

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