Equilibrium/ Sustainability — Presented by NextEra Energy — Olympics medals made of mashed up smartphones

Equilibrium/ Sustainability — Presented by NextEra Energy — Olympics medals made of mashed up smartphones
© Tokyo 2020

Today is Thursday.  Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. Subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup

The Olympics might look a little different this year — and not just because would-be spectators will be viewing the games through pandemic-era livestreams.  

The Olympic torch, a sacred flame that dates back to ancient Greece, has now become an icon of the future, made up of aluminum waste from temporary housing built after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. Meanwhile, 79,000 tons of metal salvaged from donated smartphones and electronics are now the key ingredients in 5,000 Olympic and Paralympic medals, according to the International Olympic Committee

While the Olympic events adapt to changing times, we’re looking at another cross-border compromise that seeks to smooth out a key wrinkle in undersea energy diplomacy. And we’ll explore how climate-driven crop failures drive global migration — and what the countries those migrants are heading to can do to stave it off. 

For Equilibrium, we are Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Please send tips or comments to Saul at selbein@thehill.com or Sharon at sudasin@thehill.com. Follow us on Twitter: @saul_elbein and @sharonudasin

Let’s get to it.


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Biden approves Nord Stream 2 pipeline — making NATO relations a priority

The Biden administration will greenlight a controversial gas pipeline between Russia and Germany — leaving experts uncertain what the ramifications might be for the European energy landscape.

While the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will stretch 764 miles under the Baltic Sea, is already about 95 percent complete, long standing opposition from the U.S. has impeded the start of gas flow, as Dina Khrennikova and Anna Shiryaevskaya reported for Bloomberg. Russia’s Gazprom owns the project operator, but Royal Dutch Shell and other investors contributed half of the $11.2 billion cost, according to Bloomberg.

Germany sees the gas pumped through Nord Stream 2 as a low-cost resource in a region moving away from nuclear and coal, the Bloomberg report said. But critics are concerned about overdependence on Russian energy and what this win could mean for rival Ukraine.

Terms of the deal:

  • The pipeline — with a 55 billion cubic meter capacity — will double Moscow’s exports to Germany, the BBC reported.
  • Germany will “utilize all available leverage to facilitate an extension of up to 10 years” on the Ukraine-Russia gas transit agreement, slated to end in 2024, a U.S.-Germany joint statement said.
  • The U.S. and Germany will promote investments of at least $1 billion in a Green Fund for Ukraine, with Germany providing an initial $175 million.
  • Germany will appoint an envoy for bilateral energy projects with Ukraine, with $70 million in dedicated funding.

Contentious from the get-go: Since Gazprom applied for permits in 2015 — a year after Russia annexed Crimea — the pipeline has triggered fear about Russia’s potential to use gas exports as a geopolitical bargaining chip, the Financial Times reported. Opponents are also worried that Ukraine could lose $2 billion in annual fees that Moscow pays Kyiv to pump gas through the latter’s transit lines to elsewhere in Europe, the Times said.  

Rebuilding relations, reducing risk: Although the Biden administration opposes Nord Stream 2, the president decided that rebuilding relations with NATO allies like Germany was a higher priority, according to the Times.

The U.S. also sees the deal as a means of reducing risk with regard to Russia, a senior State Department official said at a press briefing, as Laura Kelly reported for The Hill.

“What we have is really a commitment on the part of both the United States and Germany to hold Russia accountable and to impose costs if it elects to use energy as a weapon or to commit aggressive acts,” the official said. 

What about climate? When President BidenJoe BidenHouse Democrat threatens to vote against party's spending bill if HBCUs don't get more federal aid Overnight Defense & National Security — The Pentagon's deadly mistake Haitians stuck in Texas extend Biden's immigration woes MORE first indicated he would waive sanctions on Gazprom in May, his opponents pointed out that he had just canceled the domestic Keystone XL pipeline, citing climate concerns, as the BBC and Fox Business reported. Meanwhile, environmentalists have filed repeated complaints against Nord Stream 2, according to the Kyiv Post.

This is a scenario in which delicate matters of diplomacy, environment, security and finances all hang in a fragile balance for multiple countries. Governments are therefore weighing different sustainability factors. If the Biden administration opted for a decision activists might deem environmentally responsible, it could have ruinous diplomatic ramifications.

The end of “unhelpful posture”: But energy specialist Morgan Bazilian, director of the Colorado-based Payne Institute for Public Policy, said Wednesday’s deal “signals the end of the unnecessary and largely unhelpful posture from the U.S.,” which he described as acting with “hubris and overreach.” 

The U.S., he told Equilibrium, had failed to recognize that “that Germany and other E.U. member states are quite capable of understanding and addressing their issues of energy security vis a vis Russia.” 

“The agreed package has a set of useful mechanisms to support Ukraine, which is most welcome,” Bazilian added.

Takeaway: Brenda Shaffer, an international energy specialist at the Naval Postgraduate School, echoed Bazilian’s sentiments, noting that “every decade or so for the last 40 years, Washington tries to block a Soviet and later Russian gas export project to Europe, without success.” 

Stressing that rerouting Russian gas supplies doesn’t mean new volumes, Shaffer told Equilibrium that the geopolitical significance of the project was “overblown” and that it works in Ukraine’s long-term interest to not be dependent on transit fees from Russia. 

“However,” Shaffer added, “with Germany closing its nuclear and aiming to close use of coal, it is going to need additional gas supplies in the future."


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World Food Program: Staving off global migration requires investment in climate-tolerant agriculture

Sisters Miriam and Irma Cuc Cac decided they could no longer stay in the Guatemalan highlands after hurricanes Eta and Iota destroyed their farm in 2020, Sabrina Rodriguez reported for Politico. Such an impossible choice marks an urgent need for wealthy countries to help finance new infrastructure, technology and crops to adapt global agriculture to the coming climate.

“There’s no way to make money here,” Miriam Cuc Cac told Rodriguez, “It’s only getting harder.” In June, Vice President Harris spoke at the U.S.-Mexico border in June about “corruption” that impacts Central American migrants traveling north, but barely touched on climate, Rodriguez wrote.

Around the world, hunger drives migration. The situation on the border is a reminder that  Instability from climate disruption doesn’t stay in one place.

Nor is it confined to one region. Widespread drought is causing unrest across the Middle East and northern and eastern Africa, The Economist reported, with 70 to 80 percent of their water reserves used, often wastefully, for agriculture.

If people can’t survive in a place, they will leave. There may be as many as 140 million migrants moving within their countries’ borders by 2050, according to a 2018 World Bank report.

An updated World Bank report, expected this July, will update that to 200 million, Renee Cho reported for Columbia Climate School. In May, Sen. Ed MarkeyEd MarkeyOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Senate Democrats ding Biden energy proposal Six Democrats blast Energy Department's uranium reserve pitch Facebook draws lawmaker scrutiny over Instagram's impact on teens MORE (D-Mass.) and Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) also proposed legislation to establish a settlement pathway in the U.S. for climate migrants.


Adaptation is possible: Where there is danger, though, there is also opportunity, Nathanael Johnson wrote for Grist. Scientists across the world are working on innovative technologies that will help adapt to a changing climate. For example, select gene editing can create new plant varieties more able to weather heat, drought or salt. 

A University of Illinois team found that warming nights were throwing off rice plants’ internal clocks, cutting production. They also identified the maladapted genes, which could allow breeders to plan around them. A University of Queensland team reported in 2017 discovering genes that help control the size of wheat yields. A University of Adelaide group found a method for growing heat-resistant barley.

Then there are more old school methods of adaptation, as Sharmila Vaidyanathan wrote for Hakai Magazine. In the tidal wetlands of South India, where salt and flooding make conventional rice farming impossible, locals plant salt-tolerant rice called Pokkali. They alternate harvesting this local family of rice — which “stand tall above brackish waters” — and flooding their fields to raise fish and shrimp. In turn, fish and shrimp droppings fertilize the next season’s rice crop.

It is a method, Vaidyanathan notes, suited well to an age of rising seas, which drive salt up into coastal soil, and plant geneticists have also identified genes for salt-tolerance using Pokkali, helping to create more salt resistant crops.

A need for investment: The World Bank report about mass climate migration had a silver lining: 80 percent of such movement could be averted by dropping emissions and supporting source countries — though that still leaves 28 million to 40 million people displaced. 

Staving off the worst disruptions, and avoiding getting trapped behind the eight ball of crisis, means increasing spending in agricultural research and development to $2 billion, according to the International Food Research Policy Institute.

Takeaway: That’s a small percentage of the $100 billion a year wealthy countries committed to poor countries for climate adaptation — but only paid out 80 percent as of 2018, as Aryn Baker noted for Time Magazine.

And it’s an eighth of a percent of the money spent globally on coronavirus recovery. 


Thermal Thursday

A power company tries to mitigate its legal exposure to blazing heat; scientists explain why heat is deadly; and an African country aims to fuel itself with the fire down below.

PG&E to bury 10,000 miles of transmission lines

  • Many factors have combined to create the hellish Western wildfire season, but a wildfire needs a spark — and California law holds electric utilities liable for every fire their equipment causes, Axios reported
  • So days after it announced its equipment had started the recent Dixie fire in Butte County, embattled California utility Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) announced it would be spending $15 billion to $20 billion to bury 10,000 miles of power lines — 40 percent of its total, Axios reported.

The science behind the deadly nature of heat waves

  • We’ve reported on the unprecedented weather scorching the world this summer, but Scientific American is exploring just why this type of heat is “so deadly.” 
  • The CDC recorded more than 3,500 emergency room visits for heat-related illnesses in May and June, in the Pacific Northwest alone. 
  • Overheating and dehydration make the blood thicken and cause the heart to pump harder, Tanya Lewis reported. “Once your thermal stress or heat gain becomes too much, even sweating is not going to keep up with getting rid of the additional heat,” JohnEric Smith, of Mississippi State University, told Scientific American. 
  • And while people can acclimatize to some level of heat, Lewis wrote, when high temperatures hit places unaccustomed to such conditions, the results “can be especially deadly.”

Kenya, world leader in geothermal energy, wants to export that talent

  • An experimental geothermal power plant set up 40 years ago now provides enough zero carbon power for 500,000 Kenyan households with steam heated by magma down below, according to Bloomberg Green.
  • Now Kenya wants to double that, using a state-run development company “to shoulder the investment risks associated with the technology,” which involves drilling wells in a manner akin to that of “oil wildcatters.”
  • Kenya’s state electricity company just won a contract to drill geothermal wells in Djibouti and Ethiopia, and is in talks with Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Please visit The Hill’s sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you on Friday afternoon.