Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Notre Dame overhaul embraces climate focus

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The city of Paris will be resurrecting the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral — scorched by a devastating blaze in 2019 — with a climate-forward cooling system that incorporates both technology and trees.   

“A city like ours can no longer think outside of climate change,” Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said at a Monday news conference, according to The New York Times.

While officials plan to leave the stone square in front of the cathedral mostly intact, they said they will be removing fencing to merge the area with surrounding parks while planting 30 percent more vegetation in the area, according to the Times.  

The redesign will also involve transforming an existing parking lot under the main square into an underground walkway that leads to the banks of the Seine River and houses an archeological museum, the newspaper reported.

And on particularly hot days, a cooling system will send a thin sheet of water cascading down the square in front of Notre Dame, which is expected to lower temperatures by several degrees.

Paris City Hall is investing $53 million in reviving the cathedral, which officials hope to partially reopen in 2024 — just in time for the city to host the Olympic Games, the Times reported.

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 look at the presence of cancer-linked compounds in household natural gas and see how Atlantic hurricanes are growing in size and frequency. Then we’ll look at how a global chemical shortage means a worsening rise in U.S. food prices.

Cooking, heating gas may have dangerous pollutants

Natural gas used for cooking and heating may contain cancer-linked compounds that are toxic to residents when leaked, a new study has found.  

  • The study, published in Environmental Science & Technology, investigated the composition of Greater Boston’s “unburned” household gas, or the gas that comes out of a kitchen stovetop when switching on the appliance.
  • The authors detected varying concentrations of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) — which are known not only to be carcinogenic, but also to generate secondary pollutants such as particulate matter and ozone.     

Not just methane: Most related research has focused on methane — the primary component of natural gas — and its considerable effects on climate change, the authors noted.  

Instead, the scientists chose to explore the degree to which other air pollutants are present at household “end use.”  

Just like pizza sauce: “Natural gas is mostly methane like pizza sauce is mostly tomatoes,” lead author Drew Michanowicz, a visiting scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told reporters prior to the study’s release.  

“There’s other trace ingredients in pizza sauce. You need salt, oregano, pepper,” he said, drawing a comparison to the VOC additives. 

What did they find? From December 2019 through May 2021, the researchers collected 234 samples from 69 kitchen stoves and building pipelines across the Boston region.  

  • They detected 296 unique chemical compounds — 21 of which are designated by the federal government as hazardous.
       
  • One VOC that appeared in 95 percent of samples was benzene, whose wintertime concentrations were nearly eight-fold greater than those of summertime.    

Concerning, but impacts are unclear: “Benzene is concerning because it’s a known human carcinogen,” Michanowicz said. 

“Because of that, it’s strongly regulated,” he added, noting that the levels in these samples were relatively low. 

Michanowicz reiterated that their study did not assess associated health effects and that more research needs to occur.  

What does industry say? Jake Rubin, senior director for public relations at the American Gas Association, acknowledged that “combustion emissions from gas ranges, ovens and cooktops can contribute to some degree to emissions of recognized pollutants.” 

He insisted, however, that “there are no documented risks to respiratory health from natural gas stoves from the regulatory and advisory agencies and organizations responsible for protecting residential consumer health and safety.”  

Precautionary measures: Even prior to determining precise health impacts, the researchers said there are proactive measures residents can take to minimize potential harm.  

Increasing filtration and ventilation within the home is an effective step, as is fixing indoor gas leaks, according to co-author Zeyneb Magavi, of the Boston-based Home Energy Efficiency Team.  

An intimate connection: “A fossil fuel pipeline literally ends where a kitchen begins,” Michanowicz said.  

“Cooking over a natural gas flame is probably the most intimate connection with climate change that we never think about,” he added. 

To read the full story, please click here.

Atlantic hurricanes growing in power and number

Two potential tropical storms are forming in the Gulf of Mexico, one of which is headed for Texas. 

While neither is likely to form a full-blown hurricane, they are an overture to what is likely to be a busy, destructive Atlantic hurricane season. 

Two to watch: The National Hurricane Center (NHC) is monitoring two storm systems in particular this week.

The systems are unlikely to form hurricanes, but if they progress to named tropical storms, these will be named Bonnie and Colin, respectively, NBC News reported. 

Trouble for the Eastern Seaboard: Hurricane frequency is increasing in the North Atlantic, according to a study published on Monday in Nature Climate Change. 

This year is predicted to be the seventh straight year of above-average numbers of Atlantic Ocean hurricanes, our colleague Zack Budryk reported last month.

  • The Atlantic increase contrasts with the pattern in every other ocean basin, where hurricane incidence has declined, the Nature study found.
     
  • But those storms that do emerge are getting worse, according to the scientists. 

Less in number, worse in scale: “Even though cyclones are getting fewer, those that do form are now feeding more energy from the warming atmosphere, so that’s why they’re getting more intense,” Savin Chand of Australia’s Federation University told CNN.

CLIMATE’S ROLE IN HURRICANES DANGEROUSLY UNCLEAR

We still don’t know to what extent human-caused climate change is behind the increase in tropical cyclones — which makes us more vulnerable to them, according to a study in the inaugural edition of Environmental Research: Climate.

  • “We really don’t have a comprehensive overview or detailed inventory of what impacts climate change is having today,” co-author Friederike Otto of Imperial College London said in a statement. 
  • “Understanding the role that climate change plays in these events can help us better prepare for them,” said lead author Ben Clarke of the University of Oxford.

Chemical shortage means higher food prices

A worldwide shortage of chemicals resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is interfering with spring planting for farmers in the U.S. 

That means already rising food prices are likely to keep increasing, putting Black Americans at particular risk, CNBC reported.

Shortage in the fields: Soaring prices and limited supplies of pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and fertilizers are leading to bottlenecks in U.S. crop production, even as the world grain supply reels from the interruption of exports from Ukraine, Reuters reported. 

“This is off the charts. Everything was delayed, delayed, delayed,” the owner of an Indiana agricultural supply store told Reuters. 

Shortage at the plant: A particular vulnerability in the global chemical supply chain is the enormous BASF plant in Germany, a primary supplier of key herbicides and fertilizers, The Wall Street Journal reported.

  • The plant — which is heavily dependent on Russian gas for heat, power and as a source of chemical precursors — is now facing the possibility of a shutdown as Moscow tightens supplies, according to the Journal. 
  • “We’ve never faced such a situation before. It’s difficult to imagine,” chief company economist Peter Westerheide told the Journal. 

Shortages on the shelves: Any constriction of crop yields means rising food prices, and interruptions in fertilizer supplies are already pushing up costs at the grocery store, according to the nonprofit Poynter Institute. 

  • Those rising prices are particularly damaging to Black families, who are more likely to live in zones of scarce or expensive groceries, CNBC reported. 
  • Their wealth also tends to significantly trail that of white families, while Black incomes tend to be disproportionately spent on daily needs, according to CNBC. 

For Black families, any further rise in prices “is going to be extremely devastating,” William Darity Jr. of Duke University told CNBC.

Turbine construction may harm marine life: study

The construction of offshore wind turbines may be damaging the hearing of porpoises and seals, scientists warned in a new study. 

The study, published in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, examined how heavy-duty equipment used to drive steel supports into the seafloor — called “pile drivers” — may be too noisy for these animals.  

Why seals and porpoises? “They are acoustically sensitive and among the most common marine mammals in shallow western European waters, a center of the rapidly expanding offshore wind farm industry,” co-author Jakob Tougaard, of Denmark’s Aarhus University, said in a statement

  • The study comes a day after U.S. developers reached an agreement with environmentalists to protect another species: The rare North Atlantic right whale, The Associated Press reported. 
  • This agreement requires decreasing pile driving noise, as well as reducing vessel speeds to prevent collisions, according to the AP.   

Change may be needed: The Danish scientists urged governments to revisit existing noise regulations, which rely on U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service data from seven years ago.  

  • The regulations were established by exposing animals in captivity to noise levels that create a “temporary threshold shift”— or the lowest noise that can temporarily reduce hearing, according to the study.  
  • This threshold can then be used to extrapolate what levels could cause permanent damage, the authors explained.     

So what’s wrong? Different species have different hearing abilities, while some discrepancies exist between predicted and measured noise thresholds, the authors observed.  

For example, they found differences between the impact of low frequency noise on seals and high frequency noise on porpoises.   

Going forward: The authors called for further research dedicated to measuring the impacts of noise on these species, so that they receive the protection they need.

Toxic Tuesday

Roundup case continues to court, Texans call for more stringent environmental protection and an online meal-kit service is in trouble.

SCOTUS rejects Bayer challenge to weedkiller case 

  • The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected a bid from Bayer AG to dismiss a lawsuit alleging that its Roundup weedkiller causes cancer, Reuters reported. The decision upheld a ruling that awarded $87 million to plaintiffs in a California lawsuit, according to Reuters. 

Texans demand more environmental regulation 

  • Dozens of Texans demanded the state environmental regulator to do more to prevent pollution of their land, air and water, The Texas Tribune reported. “We’ve been taught that pollution is not good for our health and growing brains,” a nine-year-old resident told the commission, questioning why the regulator “keeps permitting plants that pollute our air and water.”  

Instagram meal company faces allegations of tainted food 

  • Meal kit service Daily Harvest — which rose to prominence by using Instagram influencers to hype its products — is suffering a backlash after several people became seriously ill from one of its products, which the company has now voluntarily recalled, CNN reported

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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