Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — World was abnormally dry in 2021: UN

Most of the globe was drier than usual in 2021 — circumstances that wreaked havoc on both economies and the environment, according to the World Meteorological Organization. 

About 3.6 billion people had inadequate access to water at least one month per year, the U.N. agency determined in its inaugural report on global resources. That number is expected to rise to more than 5 billion by 2050, the report warned.  

“The impacts of climate change are often felt through water — more intense and frequent droughts, more extreme flooding, more erratic seasonal rainfall and accelerated melting of glaciers,” Petteri Taalas, secretary-general of the agency, said in a statement

In turn, these conditions have had “cascading effects on economies, ecosystems and all aspects of our daily lives,” Taalas added. 

Areas that were unusually dry in 2021 included South America’s Rio de la Plata, as well as Africa’s Niger, Volta, Nile and Congo rivers, according to the report.  

The authors observed the same trend for parts of Russia, West Siberia and Central Asia. 

In some areas of North America, on the other hand, the report identified above-normal river volumes. Such conditions also applied to the North Amazon and South Africa, as well as China’s Amur river basin and northern India.  

“Overall the negative trends are stronger than the positive ones,” the World Meteorological Organization warned.

Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. We’re Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Sign up below or online here.

Today we’ll see why the American solar companies may have trouble getting panels, as well as check in on a developer that received a big grant to build on the moon. Plus: Why the U.N. thinks the Great Barrier Reef is “endangered.”

US faces solar panel shortage amid crackdowns

Thousands of shipping containers filled with solar panels are sitting idle at American ports — detained by U.S. Customs over human rights concerns, The Wall Street Journal reported. 

Stuck in line: Around 4,000 containers containing a gigawatt worth of panels have likely been stuck at U.S. ports since June, the Journal reported, citing the Solar Energy Industries Association.  

  • This situation has become a significant challenge to solar developers as they work to meet the Biden administration’s clean energy goals.  
  • Suppliers have also frozen further shipments of solar panels intended for the U.S. 

Solar shortage: The crackdowns stem from U.S. legislation aimed at curbing the forced labor of Uyghur ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, China. 

The resulting bottleneck has led to what the Journal described as an “acute shortage of solar panels” across the country.  

Sifting out the silicon: The Biden administration first put its foot down on the use of forced labor in Xinjiang in June 2021, as we reported.  

  • U.S. Customs at the time issued an order enabling the detainment of silica-based products made by Xinjiang’s Hoshine Silicon Industry Co., Ltd. 
  • Hoshine is among the biggest global producers of metallurgical-grade silicon, a key raw material in solar-grade polysilicon.  
  • The U.S. government cited evidence in 2021 “reasonably indicating” that the company engages in forced labor practices. 

Congress kicks in: This past June, President Biden signed into law the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act — prohibiting goods produced by the forced labor of Uyghurs, our colleague Jared Gans reported for The Hill.  

  • The Chinese government has forced at least a million Uyghurs into internment camps. 
  • Beijing has denied allegations of human rights abuses. 

‘Modern slavery’: The number of Uyghur and Kazakh people subjected to “re-education programs” may be as high as 2.6 million, The Guardian reported, citing an Australian study released on Monday.  

The study, published by the Clean Energy Council nonprofit, went so far as to describe the clean energy supply chain as “modern slavery” — calling for increased due diligence.  

What has the new U.S. law meant in practice? U.S. Customs began enforcing the new law in June 2022 — detaining goods presumed to have been produced in Xinjiang, according to the Journal. 

  • Goods can be released if the importer proves that they weren’t made in this region, an agency spokeswoman told the Journal.  
  • Some Chinese manufacturers are avoiding using Chinese silicon in panels intended for the U.S. and are instead opting for American or German silicon. 

What can be done? To help accelerate the clean energy transition while curbing forced labor, the Clean Energy Council study advocated “for establishing domestic supply chain capabilities.” 

While this report applied to Australia, many U.S. developers have taken similar stances — by purchasing panels from U.S. manufacturers that won’t be ready for years, the Journal reported.  

  • “Typically, we’ve never bought modules five years in advance of when we need them,” Kevin Smith, of First Solar, told the Journal.  
  • “But that’s where the market is headed in order to incentivize manufacturing in the U.S.,” he added.

Printing a moon base

A Texas-based company that aims to 3D-print future moon and Mars bases received $57 million from NASA this week.

“In order to explore other worlds, we need innovative new technologies adapted to those environments and our exploration needs,” Niki Werkheiser, a director at NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said in a statement. 

Big goals: Project Olympus, ICON’s proposed self-driving 3D printer, would be delivered to the moon — or Mars — by rocket and head over to its build site to begin printing structures, according to the company. 

NASA has billed its upcoming Artemis lunar programs as “the testbed for crewed exploration further into the solar system.” 

A developing relationship: NASA is trying to “prove it would be feasible to develop a large-scale 3D printer that could build infrastructure on the Moon or Mars,” said Corky Clinton, of NASA’s Marshall Space flight center in Huntsville, Ala.

  • For the past two years, ICON has worked with NASA to build prototypes for extraterrestrial bases using its proprietary large-scale 3D printing technology. 
  • ICON is using somewhat similar technology to “print” a 100-home planned community north of Austin. 

In collaboration with NASA, ICON has 3D-printed a simulated Mars habitat — Mars Dune Alpha — that the space administration will use for simulated missions beginning next year. 

Engineering challenges: But the needs of these new space structures will strain the bounds of existing metal and inflatable architecture, according to ICON. 

  • That’s because lunar structures will need to protect inhabitants from temperatures that can reach highs of 250 and lows of negative 208 Fahrenheit.
     
  • They will also have to contend with DNA-corroding radiation and frequent pummeling from micro-meteorites, according to the company.

UNESCO: Great Barrier Reef ‘in danger’ 

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef should be added to the World Heritage Committee’s list of sites in danger, a report from UNESCO recommended on Monday.  

A critical mission: The reef, located on the northeast coast of Australia, is home to 400 types of coral, 1,500 species of fish and 4,000 types of mollusks, according to UNESCO. 

  • “The property is faced with major threats that could have deleterious effects on its inherent characteristics, and therefore meets the criteria for inscription on the List of World Heritage in Danger,” the report stated.  
  • The authors drew their conclusions following a March 2022 “reactive monitoring mission,” conducted with the International Union for Conservation of Nature.  

Climate crisis: Acknowledging “the unparalleled science and management efforts” that have recently helped the reef, the authors identified significant impacts from climate change.  

  • Some such effects have included “widespread coral bleaching events, occurring with increasing frequency,” according to the report. 
  • One such mass bleaching even took place during the mission team’s visit.  

Threats from land: The inshore region of the reef has also faced threats from land-based activities, which have harmed water quality, the authors found.  

Sufficient progress has not occurred to meet previous environmental goals — a situation that the authors attributed “to the sheer scale of the challenge.” 

What does Australia have to say? Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek told reporters on Monday that there was “no need to single out” the Great Barrier Reef as being “in danger.” 

“We understand that the people who live and work on the Reef might find the report alarming,” Plibersek and Australian Senator Nita Green, special envoy for the Great Barrier Reef, said in a joint statement on Tuesday.  

  • The politicians described the findings as a “technical report,” rather than a proposal for listing the reef as in danger. 
  • The statement went on to delineate actions Australia has taken to mitigate harm to the reef, while engaging “in constructive dialogue with UNESCO.”

Cooperative GMO plants may mean bigger yields

Scientists have used genetic engineering to create more “cooperative” plants — potentially allowing farmers to quickly create larger yields in same-sized fields. 

Fields of plants modified to be cooperative could produce higher yields than their more competitive cousins, according to a paper published on Tuesday in PLoS Biology. 

Benefit from altruism: It is intriguing that “we humans, one of the most cooperative species, can profit from making our crops more cooperative,” Samuel Wuest, of the University of Zurich, said in a statement. 

  • Plants growing beside genetically similar relatives can pursue two broad strategies, the scientists wrote. 
  • They can either grow rapidly outward to aggressively shade out their neighbors — or restrain their own growth to allow their relatives to grow well. 

Smaller is better: The tradeoff between individual size and collective yield is one that’s well known in agronomy. 

  • In the mid-20th century, the so-called “Green Revolution” transformed crop yields in large measure by introducing genes that conferred dwarfism into key cereal grains like corn, the researchers explained. 
  • This measure kept plants from growing too tall or spreading their leaves too wide for their neighbors to get enough light. 

Mapping traits: To identify genes for cooperation, the scientists grew Arabidopsis plants (a common model organism used in this sort of test) next to both genetically similar and dissimilar individuals.  

This approach helped them determine which plants could maximize the ability to grow fast — and which could restrain that ability to allow a neighbor to grow.

  • Cooperative plots, they found, generated 15 percent more above-ground biomass. 
  • They also used less energy, as the underground portions of the plants spent less resources on “invading their neighbors’ root zones for nutrients,” the scientists wrote.

Future applications: This methodology allows scientists to discover cooperative genes for many other crops or characteristics, Wuest said. 

“Such variation, once identified in a crop, could rapidly be leveraged in modern breeding programs and provide efficient routes to increase yields,” he added. 

Tech Tuesday

Royals to visit climate tech lab, Musk’s Boring Company keeps ghosting cities and Australia builds a $1.3 billion wind energy project without customers. 

Massachusetts climate tech hub gears up for royal visit

  • Greentown Labs — home to more than 200 climate tech startups — in Somerville, Mass., is awaiting the arrival of the Prince and Princess of Wales during their visit to the state next week, CBS affiliate WBZ-TV reported. The royal couple will be meeting with a handful of these startups that are focusing on “cleaning the air, reviving the oceans, fixing the climate,” a representative of the labs told WBZ-TV. 

Musk’s Boring Company backs away quietly

  • Elon Musk’s Boring Company has repeatedly “ghosted” American cities after pitching them on cheap underground traffic tunnels, The Wall Street Journal reported. The drilling company has frequently made ambitious promises to cities like Los Angeles “only to pull out when confronted with the realities of building public infrastructure,” according to the Journal.

Australia tries new model of windmill financing

  • In a first for the country, a new Australian wind farm has received $1.3 billion in financing despite having no customers signed up yet, Reuters reported. The company says that waiting for construction to begin before selling purchase agreements avoids saddling customers with cost overruns, according to Reuters.

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

Tags Biden great barrier reef moon bases solar panels United Nations

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