Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Wildfires and mass extinction events

Fire burns along a hillside in the Village of Ruidoso, N.M.
Alexander Meditz via Associated Press
Fire burns along a hillside in the Village of Ruidoso, N.M., on Wednesday, April 13, 2022. Officials say a wildfire has burned about 150 structures, including homes, in the New Mexico town of Ruidoso.

An ancient mass extinction that nearly wiped out life on Earth was accompanied by continent-spanning wildfires, a new study has found.  

The study, published on Thursday in the journal Palaios, raises the unsettling possibility that wildfires could become a powerful driver of extinction under climate change, rather than simply another symptom of changing weather.

The research team, based at the University College of Cork, found increasingly thick layers of charcoal — a sign of high-temperature wildfires in ancient forests — at the end of the Permian Period, about 251 million years ago. 

“It was an end-Permian burnout,” lead author Chris Mays said in a statement. 

The fires turned carbon sinks — areas like forests, which pull down carbon dioxide — into major sources of the planet-warming gas, which drove the firestorm on, according to Mays.

During the Permian, runaway global warming — caused in large measure by enormous releases of carbon dioxide from volcanic eruptions — powered a global feedback loop of destructive fire that raged across once-wet forests and overcame plant defenses, the team found.

“Unlike the species that suffered the mass extinctions of the past, we have the opportunity to prevent the burning of the world’s carbon sinks and help avoid the worst effects of modern warming,” Mays added. 

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. Subscribe here.

Today we’ll look at a new California law mandating big cuts in the state’s single-use plastics. Then we’ll turn to a Supreme Court decision limiting federal oversight on climate change and why OPEC’s proposed oil bump likely won’t do much for prices.

Pivotal California plastics bill becomes law 

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed into law on Thursday a landmark bill that will significantly reduce single-use plastic packaging and utensils in the state over the next decade.

  • The law — called SB-54 — requires a 25-percent decrease in disposable plastic packaging and foodware accessories by both weight and “plastic component source” by 2032, according to the bill’s text.
  • A “plastic component source” includes any single piece of plastic-covered material. Per the new law, this would mean that for every 100 juices boxes, 25 plastic straws would need to be eliminated.

A win for the ocean: Environmentalists hailed the advancement of the legislation, which passed in the state Assembly on Wednesday night and in the state Senate on Thursday morning.

“The United States is the number-one generator of plastic waste in the world and a top contributor to the ocean plastics crisis,” Anja Brandon, U.S. Plastics Policy Analyst at Ocean Conservancy and a principal contributor to the bill text, said in a statement.

“We can’t solve this problem without U.S. leadership, and by passing this law, California is righting the ship,” she added. “This is a huge win for our ocean.”  

How will the 25 percent cutback occur? The bill mandates that at least 10 percent of single-use plastic packaging and utensils either become entirely plastic free or shift from single-use to reuse and refill systems.

This decrease alone could directly remove 23 million tons of single-use plastics over the next 10 years — equivalent to nearly 26 times the weight of the Golden Gate Bridge, according to Ocean Conservancy.

And the remaining 15 percent reduction? The bills says this can occur by transitioning to bulk packaging or shifting to a non-plastic alternative materials.

  • The law mandates, however, that no more than 8 percent of such products can be reduced by using post-consumer recycled plastic.
  • All single-use packaging and foodware, including non-plastic items, must be recyclable or compostable by 2032, according to the law.
  • By the same year, all plastic-covered material offered for sale, distribution or import into the state must achieve a 65 percent recycling rate.

What does industry say? Stressing that “the law is not perfect,” Joshua Baca, vice president of plastics at the American Chemistry Council, said that this is “a better outcome” than an “anti-plastics” ballot initiative that has now been withdrawn.

  • Baca was referring to the California Recycling and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act, which would have required a 25-percent reduction by 2030, among other stricter measures.
  • That initiative, according to Baca, would have cost Californians an estimated $9 billion annually but only about 30 percent of that would be invested into improving recycling, he explained.

Moving forward: “Now we will focus on working with lawmakers, regulators, and other stakeholders to help ensure the implementation of SB 54 matches its intent: eliminating plastic waste and improving plastics circularity, while minimizing costs on Californians,” Baca said.  

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Supreme Court restricts EPA’s climate authority

The Supreme Court on Thursday curbed the power of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate climate change — imposing restrictions on the agency’s oversight of power plants.

  • The court ruled in a 6-3 decision that Congress did not authorize the EPA “to devise emissions caps” based on an Obama-era power plant regulation, our colleagues Rachel Frazin and Harper Neidig reported for The Hill.
  • The ruling — available in its full text on The Hill’s website — was split along ideological lines, with conservative justices choosing to limit and EPA’s power. 

What was at issue? The Supreme Court was probing language in the Clean Air Act that enables the EPA to regulate power plants using a “best system of emissions reduction” and what that system can include, Frazin and Neidig reported.

The majority opinion, authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, argued that the Obama administration’s use of a system that involved transitioning away from carbon-intensive coal plants and toward natural gas and renewables did not qualify.  

And the dissent? “Whatever else this Court may know about, it does not have a clue about how to address climate change,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote. “And let’s say the obvious: The stakes here are high.”

Sounding the alarm: Climate hawk members of the Democratic Party demanded action following the decision, with some lawmakers calling to expand the court and others demanding that Congress codify the EPA’s authority to combat climate change, our colleague Zack Budryk reported.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) called the ruling “catastrophic,” while House Energy Committee Chair Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) said it “makes a mockery of the clear separation of powers outlined in our Constitution.”

Power of legislation: Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) argued that the ruling could only be countered through legislation, Budryk reported for The Hill. 

“The Republicans on the Supreme Court are not going to allow any meaningful administration efforts to combat climate change. It’s crystal clear,” Wyden said. “The only way to tackle this problem is through congressional action.” 

OPEC+ push unlikely to have big effect on gas prices

Saudi Arabia and other petroleum exporting nations have agreed to ramp up oil production, but experts say the supply increase isn’t likely to significantly lower oil prices in the United States.

Pumping up: On Thursday, Saudi Arabia and fellow members of OPEC agreed to increase oil production by the equivalent of an additional 648,000 barrels, CNBC reported. 

Prices budge a bit: The promised increase in supply hasn’t yet impacted prices much — because traders don’t believe OPEC can make good on them, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Why traders are skeptical: OPEC was only able to produce 42 million barrels a day in May, the Journal reported. 

  • The Journal noted that this is 3 million barrels below the cartel’s target. 
  • That deficit is nearly five times the amount that OPEC members promised Biden. 

Walking a tightrope: The global demand for lower prices is crashing against Saudi and Emirati producers’ desire to keep supply on hand for unforeseen market disturbances, the Journal reported. 

“It is already a very difficult balancing act for us,” a senior Gulf OPEC delegate told the Journal. 

Shrinking buffer: OPEC countries are all facing shrinking levels of spare capacity — the difference between what they can and do produce, as Bloomberg reported last month.

  • “I am a dinosaur, but I have never seen these things,” Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman told Bloomberg.
  • “The world needs to wake up to an existing reality” in which it is “running out of energy capacity at all levels,” he added. 

FACING THE FUTURE

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), the region’s other principal swing producer of oil, is becoming one of the biggest state funders of renewable energy, the Journal reported.

  • Masdar, the renewables arm of the Emirati sovereign wealth fund, has already invested $20 billion in green energy projects since 2006, according to the Journal.
  • It has also promised $400 million to help developing nations transition to low-carbon energy, the company announced earlier this month. 

UAE sees big opportunities: For the world’s seventh-largest oil exporter, renewables represent a chance for expansion into a new market with less entrenched rules and players, according to the Journal.

  • It’s “such a new thing at this scale that everyone is learning as they go,” energy analyst Robin Mills told the Journal.
  • That “makes it easier to get into than trying to break into an existing business,” Mills added 

Scientists brew keystone chemical from waste gas 

Scientists have figured out how to turn a potent climate pollutant into a liquid fuel using a stream of light. 

Such a discovery opens up the possibility that waste from municipal dumps, crops, hog farms and fossil fuel production could be cheaply converted into industrial chemicals, a statement accompanying the study said.   

Gas into liquid: The researchers converted methane gas — a planet-warming chemicals dozens of times more powerful than carbon dioxide — into methanol, a building block for an enormous array of more complex industrial chemicals, according to the study, published in Nature on Thursday.  

Proposed fuel: In addition to chemical manufacture, methanol redirected from waste has been proposed as a carbon-neutral method of decarbonizing heavy freight like shipping and planes, as we previously reported. 

Potential for greenwashing: When burned, methanol still releases carbon dioxide. That makes the question of where it came from — and what products it replaced — vital to determining whether it is truly green. 

Thirsty Thursday

Wildfires could make Idaho cows produce less milk, Italian hairdressers face penalties for double-shampooing and drought creeps up on Northeast. 

Fires leave dairy cows running a little dry

  • Idaho farmers are bracing for steep drops in this year’s milk yield owing to smoke from summer wildfires — which cause cows to produce less milk, according to the Idaho Statesman. A study cited in the Statesman found that on a smoky day, a cow might produce 8 pounds less milk than a clear one — a dip of about ten percent, based on data from Penn State.

Amid drought, Italian hairdressers face fines 

  • The mayor of the Italian town of Castenaso, near Bologna, has prohibited hairdressers and barbers from shampooing clients’ hair twice, in attempt to conserve water, The Guardian reported. Those who violate the measure can receive fines of up to 500 euros ($524), according to The Guardian.

Drought conditions getting worse in the Northeast 

  • While most media attention has focused on the ongoing drought in the U.S. West, the Northeast is also struggling with increasing dryness, NBC Los Angeles reported. With no recent rain in New England, for example, about 75 percent of Massachusetts is now under moderate drought — as opposed to 25 percent last week, according to NBC.

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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