Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Beaver dams boost water quality in warming West

Hot and dry conditions in the U.S. West have created a haven for industrious beavers, whose construction skills are helping improve river water quality.   

Their prolific dam building is benefiting rivers enough to potentially outweigh the destructive impacts of climate-fueled droughts, according to a new study, published in Nature Communications on Tuesday.  

When it comes to mountain watersheds, beaver dams can have a much bigger effect on water quality than seasonal extremes in precipitation, the authors found.  

“As we’re getting drier and warmer in the mountain watersheds in the American West, that should lead to water quality degradation,” senior author Scott Fendorf, a professor of Earth system science at Stanford University, said in a statement.  

“Yet unbeknownst to us prior to this study, the outsized influence of beaver activity on water quality is a positive counter to climate change,” Fendorf added.  

The wooden barriers built by beavers raise river levels upstream, diverting water into nearby soils and secondary waterways to create new “riparian zones,” according to the study.  

These riverside ecosystems then act like filters — straining out contaminants and excess nutrients before sending the water on its way downstream, the researchers explained.   

To draw these conclusions, the researchers installed water level sensors in a spot along central Colorado’s East River where beavers had built a dam. The scientists also collected water samples to monitor nutrient and contaminants levels.  

Ultimately, they found that the beaver dam dramatically increased the removal of the contaminant nitrate — boosting its eradication by 44 percent over seasonal extremes.   

“Beavers are countering water quality degradation and improving water quality by producing simulated hydrological extremes that dwarf what the climate is doing,” Fendorf 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. A friend forward this newsletter to you? 

Today we’ll take a look at where climate stands in the midterm elections. Plus: Ukraine’s president uses remarks at the U.N. climate summit to accuse Russia of environmental destruction.  

Climate takes a backseat in Congressional contests

Americans are voting Tuesday in dozens of congressional contests that will collectively determine both control of the legislature and the fate of the Biden climate agenda.

Sustainable investing also at risk: Republicans have committed to challenging the ability of financial firms to incorporate climate risk into their investment advice — even if their customers want them to, and in possible defiance of their fiduciary duties, Axios reported. 

  • This would be akin to anti-internet activists telling firms in the 1990s that “they can’t consider the impact of the tech boom and the internet on companies as they were operating,” Alexandra Poe of law firm Hughes Hubbard and Reed suggested to Axios.  
  • Doing so would have hampered those firms “from considering something that had an incredibly significant impact,” Poe concluded. 

Changing times: Despite the critical role the midterms will play in future efforts to combat the climate crisis, direct climate politics were curiously absent from both Republican attack ads and Democratic pitches, E&E News reported.  

  • Environmental issues were hidden on both sides behind economic appeals.  
  • Democrats have been pitching the Inflation Reduction Act — the $375 billion Biden-backed climate stimulus package — largely as an economic program. 
  • “We’ve seen a stream of investments here in Ohio since the Inflation Reduction Act passed. In electric vehicles, in batteries.,” Democratic Ohio Senate hopeful Tim Ryan told E&E. 

Suspicious silence: The GOP, meanwhile, has largely avoided direct attacks on the idea of climate change. 

  • This marks a departure from GOP strategy in the 2010 midterms — which followed the last significant attempt by congressional Democrats to pass climate legislation, E&E reported. 
  • The absence of such attacks on climate action per se “speaks louder than the words,” Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Communication, told E&E.

Zelensky: Russia’s war is destroying the climate

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Tuesday condemned Russia’s invasion of his country for exacerbating the “catastrophic” effects of climate change. 

Need for global action: “There are still many for whom climate change is just rhetoric or marketing, or political ritual,” Zelensky said in a video address to the United Nations climate change conference (COP27). 

“They are the ones who start wars of aggression when the planet cannot afford a single gunshot because it needs global joint actions,” the president continued. 

Worldwide impacts: Zelensky described a situation in which dozens of countries have now had to resume coal-fired power generation to reduce energy prices following Moscow’s invasion. 

  • He also blamed the Russian war for triggering “an acute food crisis” that has stricken those countries that were already enduring “the existing manifestations of climate change.”  
  • Russian shelling, the president added, ravaged 5 million acres of forest in Ukraine in less than six months. 

Risk of disaster: Zelensky likewise accused Russia of turning the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant “de facto into a military training ground.” 

  • “They are constantly playing with connecting and disconnecting their plant and nuclear reactors from their power grid,” the president said.  
  • He warned that “there is direct risk of a radiation disaster.” 

Combatting a ‘catastrophic mistake’: Zelensky called upon world leaders to “tell those who do not take the climate agenda seriously that they are making a catastrophic mistake.” 

Those who are embarking on an “insane and illegal war,” he continued, are “destroying the world’s ability to work united for a common goal.” 

No time left: The Ukrainian leader urged COP27 participants to support a Kyiv initiative presented at the summit that would create a global platform for assessing the impacts of military actions on the environment. 

“We must ensure that suffering doesn’t multiply because the world doesn’t have time to respond to climate challenges,” Zelensky added. 

To read the full story, please click here.  

Israel, Jordan move to swap water for electricity

Israel and Jordan moved one step closer Tuesday to realizing a pivotal cross-border resource exchange — signing a memorandum of understanding on the sidelines of COP27. 

Mutual benefit: The agreement, signed in the presence of U.S. climate envoy John Kerry, advances a deal initially brokered by the United Arab Emirates last November in Dubai.  

  • The so-called “Project Prosperity” would facilitate a swap of Israeli desalinated water for Jordanian-generated solar energy. 
  • Not only would the plans help quench the thirst of water-starved Jordan, but they would also break Israel’s regional isolation as an “energy island.” 

Regional opportunity: “The signing of the Prosperity agreements opened a new page in relations between Israel and Jordan,” outgoing Israeli Energy Minister Karine Elharrar said in a statement. 

Because outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party recently failed to achieve a majority against Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, Elharrar will soon lose her ministerial role. 

Moving ahead: Regardless of who is at the helm, the partners intend to develop their implementation plans until next year’s COP28 in Dubai, according to the Energy Ministry. 

  • Prosperity involves two proposals: the first being a solar energy facility in Jordan capable of generating 600 megawatts annually for purchase by Israel. 
      
  • In exchange, Israel would evaluate the possibility of selling 200 million cubic meters of desalinated water each year to Jordan. 

Regional resilience: “Project Prosperity brings together Israel, Jordan, and the UAE to enhance regional integration and resilience in the face of climate change,” Kerry said in a tweet on Tuesday. “ 

Today was an important milestone — cementing the progress to date and setting COP28 as the horizon point for kicking off implementation.” 

‘Power of peace’: Over the past year, professionals on both sides of the border worked to develop economic and regulatory studies of the plans, according to the Israeli Energy Ministry. 

  • “Today we are leaving the next government with a legacy of cross-border regional cooperation that creates hope for the entire region,” Israel’s outgoing Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej said in a statement. 
  • The project, he added, is “a legacy of action that proves the power of peace.” 

To read the full story, please click here

Activists: Climate-vital forests protections too vague

Environmental groups are calling on the White House to take more concrete steps to protect the nation’s most important forests — the vast majority of which are on federal lands, and most of which have no formal protection. 

  • “It’s the large trees — the oldest trees in the forest — that are our best carbon reservoirs,” forest scientist Dominick DellaSala of advocacy group Wild Heritage told reporters on Tuesday. 
  • About 35 percent of U.S. forestlands is composed of these forests, principally on federal land, according to a study DellaSala co-authored in September in Frontiers in Forests and Global Change. Yet only a quarter of those most valuable forests are under explicit protection — and if those most valuable forests were logged over the next decade, the result would be a significant uptick in U.S. emissions — the authors found.  

Important timing: DellaSala’s comments came the day after the Biden administration unveiled a sweeping new roadmap at COP27 for curbing wildland and biodiversity loss.

  • The roadmap directs $25 billion in infrastructure funding toward “nature-based solutions” — which the White House defined as the use of ecosystems to address societal challenges, “like fighting climate change.” 
  • “We are grateful for the Biden roadmap from yesterday about natural climate solutions, but need national rulemaking to codify protection,” DellaSalla said. 

What kind of solutions? Behind DellaSalla’s call for specificity is the fact that natural climate solutions — like the role of forests themselves — are a notoriously squishy category, espoused in very different forms by environmental and logging groups. 

  • For example, logging giant Wayerhaeuser portrays its logging activities as part of a harmonious closed loop of carbon sequestration. 
  • But DellaSalla and other scientists said that this math doesn’t work for old and established forests — defined as those forests which have either never been cut or have fully recovered.  

“But you never really catch up to what was left in the old growth forest. The carbon debt is transferred to the atmosphere,” he said. 

To read the full story, please click here.

Transport Tuesday

Airfares won’t be getting cheaper anytime soon, electric vehicle (EV) makers focus on sustainable steel and a new startup bets that customers need less ‘car’ in their cars. 

Cheap airfares aren’t likely to come back soon 

  • As airlines battle rising fuel and labor costs, sky-high ticket prices won’t be dropping anytime soon, The Wall Street Journal reported. Airlines have stabilized operations following a summer marred by delays and cancellations, but did so by cutting back on flights — preventing industry growth in the near future, according to the Journal. 

‘Green steel’ is next frontier for climate-safe cars

  • Advances in electric vehicle technology have done little to transform one of the most carbon-polluting elements of automobile manufacture — the fabrication of steel, “a dirty, old-fashioned process that’s changed little in the past 150 years,” clean energy trade journal GreenBiz reported. One promising technology: green hydrogen, which creates the heat needed to melt iron into steel without carbon emissions, according to GreenBiz.  

New miniature EVs straddle line between car and e-bike

  • EV startup Wink Motor is rolling out low-speed “neighborhood electric vehicles” — think a tiny car with the speed and energy demands of a golf cart — in hopes of wooing short-distance commuters, Electrek reported. “They are small and easy to park in tight spaces like an electric bike or motorcycle, yet have fully enclosed seating for four adults,” Wink chief executive Mark Dweck told Electrek. 

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

Tags Climate change Russia-Ukraine war Sustainability Volodymyr Zelensky
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