Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Papayas float above rising seas

Farmers in low-lying regions of Bangladesh are braving rising sea levels by cultivating their crops aboard hand-woven rafts. 

Faced with inhospitable growing conditions that could threaten their livelihoods, they are adapting to a climate of surging swamp waters by reviving a relic of the country’s past, according to Reuters.  

These farmers are returning to a traditional technique in which they plant vegetables — from cucumbers to papaya — on rafts woven from the stalks of invasive water hyacinth, Reuters reported.  

When floods come — as they now do for eight to 10 months per year — the crops float, rather than drown. Most of the crops are then sold as saplings, or young trees, according to Reuters.  

“These days, the land is under water for a longer time,” one farmer told Reuters. “This ancient technique has helped us to earn a living.”

Bangladesh could lose nearly a fifth of its land area and almost a third of its food production by 2030, the International Monetary Fund reported. 

As climate conditions become increasingly unstable in the region, floating farms could become a crucial technique for local families, according to Reuters.  

Already, some 6,000 subsistence growers across Bangladesh’s swampy southwest are now cultivating their crops aboard these rafts, Reuters reported. 

“It requires less space than conventional farming and does not need pesticides,” local agricultural official Digbijoy Hazra told the outlet.  

“When we’re fighting … the impact of global warming, floating farming could be the future,” Hazra added. 

Floating afield: The similar chinampa system of Central Mexico — in which crops are grown on rafts floating in highland lakes — could also have significant sustainability benefits, according to a 2019 duty by the American Society for Horticultural Science. 

Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter from The Hill that tracks the growing battle over the future of sustainability. We’re Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin.

Today we’ll start in Ukraine, where officials have called for urgent reductions in power use. Then we’ll explore coal’s unlikely role in electric vehicle batteries and also see how alligators are getting sick from “forever chemicals.”


Ukrainians asked to cut power consumption

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has asked residents to reduce their electricity usage, as the country battles power disruptions caused by Russian attacks on energy infrastructure, our colleague Zach Schonfeld reported for The Hill.  

Chilly timing: Officials requested on Thursday that Ukrainians take steps to reduce their electricity use between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. 

  • Zelensky warned that blackouts will persist throughout the country, noting that three energy facilities were destroyed by Russia this week. 
  • The cutbacks coincide with the start of the heating season, Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said on his Telegram channel. 

Water shortages could also occur: Some grocery stores in the capital have observed that customers are beginning to buy more 5-liter bottles of mineral water, according to Reuters.  

Charge devices, prepare hugs: In anticipation of forthcoming blackouts, Ukrainian national energy company Ukrenergo asked residents to stock up on water, as well as on “warm socks and blankets and hugs for family and friends,” the BBC reported. 

The power company urged Ukrainians to charge all phones, power banks, flashlights and batteries, according to the BBC.  

Residents remain resilient: “Russians have invaded our country, there is much anger against Russian leaders and Russian people,” Mikhaylo Holovnenko, a Kyiv resident, told Reuters. 

“But we are ready for outages,” Holovnenko continued. “We have candles, charged power banks. Ukraine is charged to win.” 

Energy, hunger as weapons: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz accused Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday of using energy and hunger as weapons, Reuters reported.  

  • “Scorched earth tactics will not help Russia win the war,” Scholz told the German parliament. 
  • Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, slammed Scholz in response, declaring that he “has clearly forgotten the Nazi past of his country.” 

Acts of terror: Other Western officials have issued similar condemnations, with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen describing the assaults as “war crimes,” as The Hill reported. 

“Cutting off men, women, children of water, electricity and heating with winter coming — these are acts of pure terror,” von der Leyen tweeted. 

Why your EV battery could be made with coal

A Southeast Asian battery boom is helping produce a flood of electric vehicle (EV) components essential to both the regional and global energy transition.  

A clean energy push is particularly gaining momentum in Indonesia, which supplies nickel and other minerals to manufacturers like Hyundai and LG.  

But that push also comes with a dark side: Its dependence on planet-heating emissions from coal, The Wall Street Journal reported.

  • Indonesia’s battery industry is a case study in the complication of decoupling clean energy and fossil fuel supply chains. 
  • The country’s international deals with battery suppliers raise questions about the true carbon costs of clean energy components — and the ability of consumers to untangle them.

Building the future: Indonesia is a global mining leader that wants to upgrade its economy by also refining elements like nickel that are needed in clean energy and high-tech manufacturing, CNBC reported.

  • Indonesia is by far the world’s top supplier of raw nickel, which is used in the anodes of electric batteries, according to the United States Geological Survey. 
  • The island nation also ties Australia for largest proven nickel reserves. As such, Indonesia has welcomed investments from Chinese firms building new nickel refineries in its territory, according to a September report from the Brookings Institute. 

Coal liability: But as in China, much of the energy for this cleantech push comes from coal. 

  • Indonesia is the world’s fourth largest coal producer, and the largest exporter of thermal coal, according to CNBC. 
  • The country’s low-grade nickel also requires more energy than higher-grade ores — and therefore carbon emissions — to refine it.  

Investors may not care: Indonesia’s reliance on coal hasn’t stopped big mineral-strapped battery and EV manufacturers from partnering with the country.

  • In April, South Korea-based LG Energy — the world’s second largest battery manufacturer — signed a $9 billion deal to source nickel from Indonesia, the Financial Times reported. 
  • LG Energy is also building a $1 billion battery plant in the country with Hyundai Motor Group — manufacturers of the popular IONIQ EV line, according to a news release from Hyundai.  

A DEVELOPMENT PARADOX 

Indonesia’s coal-dependent clean-energy push comes as the country struggles to escape a paradigm in which it exports only low-value raw materials, CNBC reported.

  • A key element of this push was the country’s 2020 ban of exports of raw nickel in order to incentivize a domestic industry. 
  • But over the long term, a coal-dependent cleantech push threatens to undercut Indonesia’s ability to sell to Western markets, according to the Journal.

Two-tiered market? If cutting the carbon cost of EVs is important, Western manufacturers and consumers may need to get used to paying more for “low-carbon” nickel, according to analysis from commodity news site Fastmarkets.

  • For example, Tesla is buying low-carbon nickel from Canada, per a statement from exporter Vale. 
  • “It all comes down to price and if people are willing to pay more for ESG material,” Fastmarkets analyst Andy Farida said, referring to minerals that meet environmental, social and governance standards. 

Alligators exposed to PFAS show autoimmune issues

Alligators exposed to “forever chemicals” in North Carolina’s Cape Fear River may be experiencing adverse clinical and autoimmune effects, a new study has found.  

Visible injuries: In addition to showing genetic indicators for immune system effects, the animals had many unhealed or infected lesions, according to the study, published on Thursday in Frontiers in Toxicology.  

  • “Alligators rarely suffer from infections,” Scott Belcher, an associate professor of biology at North Carolina State University, said in a statement.  
  • “They do get wounds, but they normally heal quickly,” he continued. 

Gauging the gators: From 2018 to 2019, Belcher and his colleagues took blood samples and conducted health evaluations on 49 alligators living along the Cape Fear River.  

They found that the animals had elevated levels of 14 different types of so-called forever chemicals, also known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). 

What are PFAS, again? They’re artificial compounds that can persist for decades in the environment and are linked to many illnesses.  

Notorious for their presence in jet fuel firefighting foam and industrial discharge, PFAS are also key ingredients in a variety of household items, such as nonstick pans.

Why study PFAS in the Cape Fear? This river, located in central and coastal North Carolina, has long been contaminated by PFAS.  

  • The basin covers more than 9,300 square miles of waterways that service about 5.2 million residents, according to the study.  
  • Upstream contamination has come from fluorochemical production, manufacturing, wastewater treatment discharges and the use of firefighting foams.  

Why check the gators? “Alligators are a sentinel species – harbingers of dangers to human health,” Belcher said. 

What did they find? The alligators exposed to PFAS had elevated levels of genes that are responsive to an immune protein called interferon-alpha, according to the study.   

  • In humans, high expression of these genes is an important indicator of autoimmune diseases, such as lupus, Belcher explained.
      
  • Already, some PFAS exposures in humans have been connected to chronic autoimmune disorders like ulcerative colitis and thyroid disease, he added.  

Human-gator links: “Seeing these associations between PFAS exposure and disrupted immune function in the Cape Fear River alligators supports connections between adverse human and animal health effects and PFAS exposure,” he added.  

To read more about their findings, please click here for the full story.

Wildfires push mountain lions into riskier behaviors 

Habitat destruction caused by Los Angeles’s 2018 Woolsey Fire has pushed the city’s native cougar population into more risky behaviors that threaten their long-term survival, a new study has found.

  • After the fire, the big cats tended to avoid the burned-out hills, and they remained out of dense urban areas, according to the study in Current Biology. 
  • But they were far more likely to cross busy freeways, be active during the day and move across territories of other mountain lions, the authors observed.

These behavioral changes raised their “risk of negative encounters with humans and other mountain lions,” ecologist Rachel Blakey of the University of California, Los Angeles, said in a statement. 

Focus on connection: The movement patterns of the mountain lions tracked by the researchers demonstrated the importance of cultivating greenways to connect fragmented habitats, Blakey noted.

  • Despite suburban fears, the cats really do not want to run into people, she emphasized.  
  • “The idea that mountain lions will run across freeways, rather than take their chances in urban areas, really reinforces how strongly mountain lions avoid humans,” Blakey said. 

Thursday Threats

Tens of thousands of chickens face an untimely death, a common herbicide could raise risks of a bowel disease and Atlantic hurricane season could make a comeback.

Mass chicken cull to avoid mass infection 

  • Officials in the Netherlands have ordered the culling of 300,000 chickens after a virulent avian flu was found on a Dutch farm, Reuters reported. Six million flu-exposed birds have been killed in the past year in that country alone, per Reuters.

Weed killer may raise risk of inflammatory bowel disease 

  • Exposure to a common herbicide may increase intestinal inflammation, raising the risk of developing inflammatory bowel disease, a new study in Nature has found. The herbicide, called propyzamide, is commonly applied to sports fields and fruit and vegetable crops to manage weeds. Read the full Hill story to learn more about the findings.  

Atlantic hurricane season may not be over yet 

  • With just one month left in Atlantic hurricane season, meteorologists say it’s too soon to determine whether another tropical storm could make landfall, AccuWeather reported. While it is improbable that a named storm will form by the end of this week, the chance of such a development will rise near the end of October and into November, according to AccuWeather.

That’s it for today. We’ll see you tomorrow!

Tags blackouts Electric vehicles EV batteries food insecurity Forever chemicals PFAS power outages Ukraine invasion Vitali Klitschko Volodymyr Zelensky
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