Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — E-bikes boost Ukrainian resilience

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Ukrainian fighters are harnessing the silent speed of electric bikes to try to outwit Russian invaders as the ongoing war continues to ravage their country. 

Electric bikes — which have a top speed of 55 miles per hour and are fairly quiet — have become key support tools for reconnaissance missions, demining operations and medical deliveries in battling Russia, The Washington Post reported. 

The move is reminiscent of a World War II strategy from the conflict’s Malayan campaign, during which Japanese troops used pedal-bikes to outmaneuver British forces in the “Bicycle Blitzkrieg,” according to The Washington Post.  

While Ukrainian e-bike company Eleek donated a few bikes to the military when the war began, the firm quickly began to mass-produce bikes for the country’s fighters, the Post reported.  

From a bomb shelter, Eleek workers started producing a power bank from lithium-ion battery cells they still had left in stock — ultimately turning to electronic cigarettes when the batteries ran out, according to the Post. 

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 explore the future of coal and natural gas in the U.S. and Europe, followed by a look at two reports on some unique survivors and victims of extreme weather. Then we’ll look at a surprising impediment to climate action: pension funds invested in fossil fuels. 

Programming note: Sustainability will not be published on Monday, May 30, in observance of Memorial Day. Enjoy the holiday weekend!

G-7 nations agree to ‘eventual’ coal phaseout 

Environment ministers of the Group of Seven (G-7) economic powers, including the U.S., agreed to an “eventual” phaseout of “unabated” coal power on Friday, our colleague Rachel Frazin reported for The Hill. 

What’s unabated coal power? It’s a method of coal-power generation that doesn’t use technology to capture carbon dioxide as it leaves the smokestack. 

And the G-7 nations are? The U.S., Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the U.K. 

A step, even if eventual: The agreement is a step up from what the countries agreed to during November’s U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP-26), at which they agreed only to a “phase down” of coal, Rachel reported.  

The G-7 nations also pledged to create “predominantly decarbonized electricity sectors by 2035,” according to a joint statement from the countries.  

Addressing high gas, oil prices: As gas and oil prices remain high around the world, the countries also called upon the world’s oil producers to “act in a responsible manner and to respond to tightening international markets.” 

The role of US gas exports in EU energy strategy

The EU’s scramble to halt Russian natural gas imports by 2027 may hinge upon the near-term imports of U.S. natural gas, experts say.  

A “monumental task”: Cutting ties with Europe’s main gas supplier will demand “a coordinated policy response that includes securing supplies from major exporters, global diplomacy, expanding import capacity, and alignment with Europe’s climate goals,” according to a comment piece in the journal Nature Energy.  

The authors described this vision as “a monumental task,” noting that natural gas supplied 24 percent of the EU’s energy demand in 2020 and remains a major fuel source across a wide range of sectors.  

Reworking resources: Last year, Russia supplied about 40 percent of the bloc’s natural gas demand.  

Eliminating those sources means a combined strategy of expanding liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports, broadening renewable energy capacity and maximizing fuel flexibility — including keeping nuclear plants open and increasing coal use short-term, the authors explained.  

Possibility of US LNG influx: The U.S. recently announced that it would provide at least 15 billion cubic meters of additional LNG to the E.U. market in 2022, as part of a joint announcement of a U.S.-European Commission task force, according to the comment.  

In addition, the European Commission has said it would work with member states to guarantee demand for an additional 50 billion cubic meters of U.S. LNG until at least 2030, the authors noted. 

Is a boost technically feasible? That’s uncertain. In the first three months of 2022, 19 billion cubic meters of U.S. LNG arrived in Europe — an increase of about 12 billion cubic meters in the same period last year, the researchers found.  

Meanwhile, two new gas “liquefaction” facilities will begin operating in the U.S. this year, according to the comment.  

Theory may not equal reality: If these trends continue, Europe could receive an additional 63 billion cubic meters of U.S. LNG by the end of the year, the authors noted.  

“However, that such an increase is theoretically possible does not mean it is practically feasible,” they warned. 

What would this vision require? A lot.  

Future deliveries to Europe depend on things like demand flexibility from contracted Asian buyers, winter weather forecasts around the world and prices that make re-routing LNG ships to Europe attractive, the authors added.  

Developing countries could be left behind: With demand increasing for LNG in Europe, prices may stay high, according to the comment. Poorer countries might therefore be forced to switch to other fossil fuels that are more polluting, such as coal or traditional biomass, the researchers warned. 

“Thus, an unintended consequence of the shock to the global gas market is that even as Europe accelerates its shift to clean energy, developing countries risk getting further left behind,” they added. 

Pillar of Caribbean ecology recovers from hurricane

A microscopic foundation of the Caribbean’s coastal ecosystem is capable of withstanding even the biggest hurricanes, a good sign for coastal resilience. 

This encouraging finding appeared in a new study in Science Advances, which looked at the impacts of severe hurricanes on microbial mats. 

What’s in a mat? These are communities of microscopic bacteria and archaea layered lasagna-like in coastal soil, according to scientists from Johns Hopkins University, University of Colorado Boulder and California Institute of Technology. 

Can’t keep a good mat down: Despite being wrecked by Category 5 winds and smothered by blown sand of Hurricane Irma, microbial mats began growing back within 10 months, the scientists determined. 

“The good news is that in these types of environments, there are these mechanisms that can play an important role in stabilizing the ecosystem because they recover so quickly,” Maya Gomes, of Johns Hopkins University, said in a statement. 

Building on up: That’s important for the resilience of a far more famous and visible natural community that relies on the mats for oxygen and other nutrients: mangrove swamps. 

These flood-dispelling, carbon-sucking and storm-absorbing landscapes protect the coastal fringes of states like Florida, or islands like Turks and Caicos or the Florida Keys. 

A new beginning: After the hurricane, the microbial mats beneath the mangroves “just started growing again and that means that as we continue to have more hurricanes because of climate change these ecosystems will be relatively resilient,” Gomes said. 

Hardening hospitals in face of extreme weather

Hospitals across country are racing to upgrade their facilities to meet a rising tide of extreme disasters fueled by climate change.  

Dangerous irony: From Louisiana to Nebraska to New York, hurricanes, heat waves and fires are filling hospital waiting rooms with the injured while severely limiting staff’s capacity to treat them, according to a report from the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC). 

Stuck in the middle: In July 2019, for example, a tornado knocked out the power to a Wisconsin hospital already crowded with people seeking treatment for a brutal summer heat wave, CNN reported. 

During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, New York University’s Langone hospital campus lost power as the city grid failed and the East River flooded backup generators, forcing the evacuation of 200 patients in the midst of the storm, according to ABC. 

Looking to the future: Hospitals are turning to measures that can be as high-tech as drone patrols to scope out clogged drains in Nebraska, the AAMC report noted.   

But such measures can also be as simple as flood barricades in New York City or a New Orleans-based barge fleet to aid in emergency post hurricane evacuations, the report added. 

ASSETS OF WEALTHY SLOWING ADOPTION OF RENEWABLES

Retirement funds in wealthy countries will be at particular risk from financial fallout when existing fossil fuel assets are abandoned, a new study has found.  

Diverse assets, concentrated risk: Heading off the worst ravages of climate change will require the bulk of global fossil fuel reserves to go unburned, meaning that their value will ultimately be lost as those carbon-intensive assets are become worthless. 

But while the coal mines and oil fields themselves are spread around the world, their owners are quite concentrated: a relatively small group of investors in wealthy countries. 

 
Interests of the few: While the benefits of the energy transition and slowing of climate change are widely shared, the costs fall disproportionately on a small number of asset managers, pension funds and wealthy households, according to a study published on Friday in Nature Climate Change. 

Who’s at risk: The wealthiest 10 percent of Americans own 82 percent of assets likely to be lose their value in the midst of a rapid energy transition, the study found. 

Most of that money isn’t in banks but in far less regulated entities like pension funds. 

Slow your roll: That asymmetry, however, also means that those entities have a great financial interest in lobbying to slow the transition as much as possible — or to demand taxpayer bailouts for going along with it, the authors found. 

Follow-up Friday

Turning back to issues we’ve explored this week

California drought could reduce hydropower, raise emissions

New accounting rules for a new industry

  • Following the Securities and Exchange Commission announcing new rules to tackle the problem of greenwashing, the leading U.S. accounting standards board may set new rules this year governing how companies account for new financial assets like carbon offsets and renewable energy credits, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Colossal sandstorms sweep the Middle East

  • Underscoring the relationship between pollution and the increased risk of respiratory issues, a monstrous wave of sandstorms swept across the Middle East this week, shuttering houses and sending thousands to hospitals with respiratory problems, with one enormous cloud traveling from Iraq to Saudi Arabia, The Washington Post reported.

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

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