Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Elephant waste polluting forests with plastic


Elephants’ eating habits are posing problems for forests in India, with the giant mammals unwittingly spreading plastic particles in the country’s greenest areas.

After ravaging village dumps at the edges of their forest habitats, the Asian elephants “quickly gobble up garbage,” including plastic packaging and utensils, The New York Times reported. 

But that “guilty pleasure for fast food” ends up returning home with them, according to the Times. 

“When they defecate, the plastic comes out of the dung and gets deposited in the forest,” Gitanjali Katlam, an ecological researcher in India, told the newspaper. 

Katlam and her colleagues have found plastic in all the dung near village dumps and in the forest adjacent to the northern Indian town of Kotdwar, according to the Times.

Plastic made up 85 percent of the waste found in elephant dung from Kotdwar — with the bulk of that waste coming from food containers, cutlery, plastic bags and food packaging, the outlet reported.

Not only is that plastic polluting the forests, but it also can also be consumed by other animals once it ends up in their habitats, according to the Times. 

“It has a cascading effect,” Katlam said. 

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 take an exclusive look at a new federal plan to decarbonize government labs, and dive into a groundbreaking lawsuit against manufacturers of so-called “forever chemicals.”

DOE investing $38M in decarbonizing lab

The U.S. Department of Energy will be investing $38 million in decarbonizing four of the agency’s 17 national laboratories, the agency announced on Wednesday.  

That’s part of the Biden administration’s broader goal of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. 

Net Zero Labs: The pilot initiative, called the Net Zero Labs, aims to establish a foundation for addressing “hard-to-decarbonize industries” and is expected to provide a replicable model for other Energy Department facilities, a statement from the agency said.  

Additional funding will likely be available on a competitive basis to all 17 national laboratories next year, according to the Energy Department.  

Cutting carbon across sectors: “Transitioning to a net-zero future will require slashing carbon pollution across all industries — from shipping to manufacturing to construction, and even the operation of our national laboratories,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in a statement ahead of her visit to one of the four pilot labs, in Golden, Colo.  

Each of the four labs reflects different geographies and climates and will be conducting site-specific research aimed at scaling up decarbonization solutions nationwide, according to the Energy Department.  

Complex energy users: The National Labs are among the federal government’s most complex energy users and have demand requirements that far exceed those of a standard facility, the agency statement stressed.  

Moving hydrogen: The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Colorado — where Granholm was visiting on Wednesday — will specifically be working to lower the cost and increase the scale of technologies to store, move and use hydrogen across multiple energy sectors, the agency said.  

“With Colorado communities on the front lines of increasingly severe natural disasters, we understand the urgent need to reduce the harmful pollution that drives the climate crisis,” Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) said in a statement.  

Nuclear research: Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls will be conducting advanced nuclear research to integrate micro reactors and small modular reactions into microgrids.

Carbon removal: The National Energy Technology Laboratory — which has hubs in Pittsburgh; Morgantown, W.Va.; and Albany, Ore. — will be developing carbon removal technologies and incentivizing carbon-free electricity production in their respective regions, according to the Energy Department.  

Algorithms, software: Lastly, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, in Richland, Wash., is innovating new algorithms and software platforms to optimize control and operation of energy assets.  

To read the full story, please click here

Massachusetts launches ‘forever chemicals’ lawsuit 

Massachusetts is suing more than a dozen manufacturers over the production and marketing of firefighting foam containing toxic “forever chemicals,” state Attorney General Maura Healey (D) announced on Wednesday. 

Healey filed the complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina as part of an expansive nationwide procedure — called multidistrict litigation — that includes hundreds of cases against producers of the fire suppressant, known as aqueous film form foam (AFFF). 

The ‘forever’ firefighting foam: AFFF, first launched by the company 3M in partnership with the U.S. military, contains perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — commonly called “forever chemicals” — that are notorious for their ability to accumulate over time in the body and in the environment. 

Holding manufacturers responsible: “Today we’re holding accountable the 13 makers of PFAS who are producing, marketing and selling firefighting foam containing these dangerous chemicals,” Healey said at a Wednesday morning press conference.  

“We’re also holding accountable two companies who shielded assets that should be available to remedy the damages caused from this contamination,” she added. 

Target companies include: 3M, DuPont and Tyco Fire Products are among the companies named in the lawsuit. Others include AGC Chemical Americas, Archroma U.S., Arkema, Buckeye Fire Equipment, Chemguard, Clarinet Corporation, Dynax Corporation, E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, Kidde-Fenwal, National Foam, The Chemours Company and and Corteva. 

What’s in the complaint? The attorney general’s complaint alleges that manufacturers repeatedly violated state and federal laws protecting drinking water and deceived consumers by marketing, manufacturing and selling PFAS-containing firefighting foam despite the dangers posed by these substances. 

 Read more.

‘Business as usual’ after Texas GOP energy face-off

Conservative Republican Wayne Christian won Tuesday’s Texas Republican primary for a seat on the state’s top oil regulator, defeating dark horse oil and gas attorney Sarah Stogner, The Texas Tribune reported. 

“I look forward to continue fighting for cheap, plentiful, reliable energy, as we stand up to the Biden’s radical liberal agenda,” Christian tweeted Tuesday night. 

Victor Flatt, who studies energy regulation at the University of Houston, told Equilibrium that “Christian’s victory means business as usual for the railroad commission.”

Dark-horse: Stogner had challenged Christian — who once suggested his climate adaptation plan was to “turn the damn air conditioner up” — in an unconventional, social-media fueled campaign for greater regulation of the oil and methane industry.

Despite her loss, Stogner’s 35 percent of the vote suggests roughly 1 in 3 state Republican primary voters were persuaded by her message of greater state controls over groundwater contamination and leakage from fossil fuel wells. 

“The results show there is a sizable part of the Republican base who are unhappy with how the state is regulating the oil and gas industry and want to see tougher standards in place to protect our water from pollution and to fix the electric grid,” argued Luke Metzger of nonprofit Environment Texas.

Digging deeper: Despite its name, the Texas Railroad Commission is one of the world’s most powerful climate and environmental regulatory bodies. 

That’s due to the commission’s role overseeing the state’s fossil fuel output — in particular the enormous Permian Basin oil and gas fields, one of the nation’s leading sources of methane pollution, according to a study by the Environmental Defense Fund.

“Not many citizens still understand its functions. Depending on democratic turnout, I suppose Christian might lose in November, but my impression is that the railroad commission is still sailing under the radar for most voters,” Flatt said. 

Stogner agrees: “It’s a marathon not a sprint,” she tweeted, promising to campaign at the Texas GOP convention to “get the name changed.”

Worth noting: Ken Paxton, Texas’ attorney general who has opposed much of President Biden’s climate agenda, also won his primary over George P. Bush on Tuesday.

The incumbent was one of the state attorneys general to sue the Biden administration over its internal social cost of carbon metric, as The Hill reported in February. 

Flatt said he would expect Paxton to keep up his legal battle against the EPA and other Biden administration priorities if reelected in the fall, which is expected.

Abandoned croplands could curb climate change

Hundreds of millions of acres of croplands around the world are being abandoned — offering an opportunity for widespread ecological restoration that could help mitigate climate change.   

Some of these croplands regenerate into natural habitats — boosting biodiversity and absorbing carbon from the atmosphere, researchers explained in a new study in Science Advances.  

Intervention required: But such a shift is unlikely to occur on a meaningful scale without intervention from lawmakers, the authors found.  

That’s because much of this temporarily-restored land ends up being recultivated, according to the study.   

A potential missed opportunity: “Unless countries and policymakers develop better regulations and incentives to allow these lands to recover, this chance to restore ecosystems will not be fully realized,” lead author Christopher Crawford, a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs, said in a statement.  

“It will remain a missed opportunity to fight climate change and biodiversity loss,” he added.  

Tracking abandonment: Crawford and his colleagues explored where in the world croplands were being regenerated — and how long they stayed that way — by using land-cover maps developed from satellite imagery that spanned from 1987 to 2017.  

As they tracked annual abandonment on 11 sites across four continents, the scientists said they were disappointed to find that a considerable amount of the land was ultimately recultivated.  

Former Soviet Union particularly problematic: Huge swaths of land there were abandoned following the geopolitical turmoil that ensued after the bloc’s collapse — experienced the highest levels of recultivation, according to the researchers.  

China left room for hope: In certain provinces of China, land was left abandoned for longer time periods — likely due to the central government’s “Grain for Green Program,” which incentivizes the regrowth of forests on abandoned croplands, the authors noted.  

“Without incentives for restoration, cropland abandonment rarely lasts long enough to yield benefits for biodiversity or carbon sequestration,” Crawford said.  

To read the full story, please click here.

World Wednesday

Record bribery fine for mining company, millionaires beg for taxation and a rare pro-environment gesture from Brazil’s right-wing president. 

DOJ fines mining company $1.1 billion for bribery  

  • Massive mining company Glencore will owe the United States U.S. government a whopping $1.1 billion in fines for bribing the Brazilian government for preferential access and below-market prices for crude oil, the Financial Times reported. 

‘Tax us now,’ millionaires beg at Davos  

  • Over 150 millionaires, including heiress Abigail Disney and actor Mark Ruffalo, called on the government and business leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland to “tax us, the rich, and tax us now,” CNBC reported. 

Brazil to hike penalties for timber-laundering 

  • Brazilians who illegally log the Amazon and sell the lumber into legal supply chains will face fines of up to $10,000 — 50-times the previous limit — under a law signed Tuesday by longtime critic of such environmental fines, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Reuters reported.

Finally, see how air pollution may raise the risk of death from stroke. 

That’s all for today. 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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