Equilibrium/ Sustainability — Presented by NextEra Energy — Cockatoo cooperation key to suburban survival

Equilibrium/ Sustainability — Presented by NextEra Energy — Cockatoo cooperation key to suburban survival
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Today is Tuesday.  Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. Subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup

Sulfur-crested cockatoos — sociable birds native to Australia — have learned over the past five years how to open trash bins in three Sydney suburbs to find “edible trash treasures,” The Associated Press reported

These innovators taught the practice to cockatoo colleagues in 40 additional suburbs, in what scientists called a rare example of seeing a “cultural trend” spread among wild birds — and one that reveals the ability of some bird species to “adapt brilliantly” to cities, while others decline.

The study also provides a lesson with implications for our own species. One secret of this avian success story is their sociability and cooperation — a sign that there may be hope for the rest of us. 

Today we look at other stories of transformation: How China, a nation built on coal, is being forced by flooding to accelerate its commitment to climate adaptation, and how renters and cash-strapped home-buyers in the frenzied housing market are making compromises when it comes to the sustainability of their own homes. 

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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Chinese floods a further mandate for Xi’s regime to take climate action

Residents of Zhengzhou, China, laid bouquets of yellow and white flowers at the entrance to a subway station where hundreds of passengers were trapped last week by rising floodwaters and at least 14 died, Dake Kang reported for the AP.

The floods revealed how the decades of economic development that turned the country into an economic superpower have also exposed it to grave climate risks — and pushed its leaders toward rapid additional reform.

Floods overflow a “sponge city”:  “I no longer have a husband; my daughter no longer has a father,” one woman wrote on social media platform Weibo, blaming subway authorities for a lack of “contingency plans,” according to the AP.

Since 2016, Zhengzhou has been a pilot “sponge city” — a city in which parks and lakes are carved out of the cement to absorb flooding, according to The New York Times

Yu Kongjian, dean of Peking University’s School of Landscape Architecture and a key popularizer of the concept in China, told the Times that a Western-style sprawl, ill-suited to the landscape, “colonized” the country’s cities over 40 years of rapid development.

Zhengzhou bloomed over that period from a muddy hamlet on a bend in the Yellow River to a city of 12 million — about the population of New York City, spread across a cement footprint 10 times New York’s size.

The city’s new artificial lakes and parks flooded last week, unable to disperse “eight inches of rain [that] fell in one hour,” the Times reported.

It’s not just Zhengzhou: In a 2017 multimedia presentation, the Times showed how the growth of key industrial cities like Guangzhou and Shenzhen had paved over enormous areas of farm and wildlands that would otherwise have absorbed rainfall — a trend that has become increasingly common along China’s coast.


A country built on coal aims for net-zero. Like Germany in the aftermath of its own recent floods (which we covered last week), China faces a climate reckoning following the Zhengzhou floods, as China’s historic reliance on coal-combustion poses a significant threat to President Xi Jinping’s commitment to reach peak emissions by 2030 and net zero by 2060 — and to the country itself.

One metric of that effort: The Belt and Road Initiative, the international Chinese development program that financed coal plants across Asia and Africa, funded no new coal in 2021, but it did fund gas and oil, according to a paper released Tuesday. 

“It’s increasingly becoming difficult to get financing for coal,” author Christoph Nedopil Wang told Bloomberg, noting that new green development guidelines from the Chinese government would make it even harder.

The Chinese government is also pushing seven industrial regions — each specializing in a carbon-intensive industry like steel (Hebei) or oil refining (Shandong) to determine ways to track carbon emissions for new projects by the end of 2021 and find ways to cut emissions by June 2022, Reuters reported

Takeaway: Climate is a more obvious threat to the Chinese state than it is to many others. That’s not only because the country is on the front lines of climate change, or even because the threat itself is necessarily worse, but, as the New York Times has noted, because the ability to manage natural disasters — particularly flooding and drought — has for thousands of years been a key indicator of the Chinese regime’s legitimacy. 

That gives Chinese policymakers a long view that is helpful in confronting a generational threat like climate. The solutions are expensive, Faith Chan, a geology professor at the University of Nottingham in Ningbo, China, told the Times, but “we’re talking about future development for the next generation or the next, next generation.”


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Rise in home prices means fewer Americans can access their own sustainable solutions

Skyrocketing home prices don’t just threaten the sustainability of cities by forcing out those who can’t afford them it also means that both homeowners and renters have less opportunity to take advantage of new sustainable technologies. 

Step one: Home-price growth reached a new record in May, climbing to the highest annual rate since 1987 as low mortgage interest rates fueled homebuying demand, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller National Home Price Index rose to 16.6 percent for the year that ended in May — a significant jump from the 14.8 percent annual rate the previous month, Nicole Friedman reported for the Journal. With a limited number of homes available, she explained, buyers competed fiercely during the past year over access to more living space.

Meanwhile, the median existing-home sale price in June 2021 rose 23.4 percent in comparison to June 2020, to a record high of $363,300, Friedman reported, citing the National Association of Realtors.

That boom may soon hit a lull. As more homeowners have listed their houses and as prices have disenchanted some buyers, according to the Journal, sales have slowed a bit this summer — though realtors remain bullish.  

“There’s probably some sticker shock happening out there,” Hilla Sferruzza, chief financial officer at Meritage Homes Corp., told the Journal. 

But “at least for now, there’s enough other folks that are willing to step into their shoes,” Sferruzza said.

With rising home prices, will the rental market surge? The current boom in the single-family rental housing market began before the pandemic but picked up the pace because of it, David Howard, executive director of the National Rental Home Council, told Equilibrium. 

“What we have been seeing is a big migration to the suburbs and the exurbs by the millennial generation,” said Howard, whose nonprofit trade association represents single-family rental homeowners, both big and small.

Renting has been particularly attractive as relocating remote workers “test drive a neighborhood” before buying, Howard explained. He cited Zillow’s April 2021 Mover Report, which found that 11 percent of people surveyed had moved in the past year.

And as prices escalate, some new buyers are finding that they may not have money left over to invest in sustainability upgrades such as an efficient HVAC system.  


But the rental market faces the same quandary. Larger rental companies typically invest about $40,000 in the homes they purchase and tend to make more upgrades that reduce each structure’s carbon footprint, according to Howard. That’s because these firms “can take advantage of economies of scale” and buy equipment like HVAC systems or solar panels at wholesale prices. 

Yet for “mom and pop” landlords who may own a house or two, the situation can be quite different, as they aren’t necessarily able to afford retrofits that foster a “more environmentally friendly situation,” Howard said. 

There are about 140 million housing units in this country, while 90 million of those are single-family homes and 23 million of those single-family homes are rentals, Howard said. About 90 percent of those homes have “mom and pop” landlords, he added. 

So what can “mom and pop” tenants do? Talk to your property owner about what you want and the options they have, Howard said. “That is what will drive change.”

Many municipalities offer tax incentives that offset renovation costs, Howard explained, noting that the Biden administration has also called for retrofitting some 2 million single-family homes in the proposed American Jobs Plan. Landlords can also charge higher rates for newer, more efficient equipment, he said.

“Renters are going to start demanding it, so I think it’s going to become a competitive issue as well,” Howard said.


Tuesday in trouble

An agency ignores its toxic legacy; wealthy residents threaten a railway overhaul; and local pollinators face gentrification in Detroit.

Watchdog: Lack of Pentagon action may have caused “preventable” risks from PFAS

NJ Transit battles multimillionaire residents of Bay Head

  • “An oceanside enclave of multimillion-dollar homes,” is fighting New Jersey Transit in its $32 million attempt to rebuild a power station damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which would help boost North Jersey Coast Line train operations, Elise Young reported for Bloomberg.
  • While NJ Transit has argued that a new substation is critical to maintaining rail function during big storms, many residents and town officials at the last stop — Bay Head — would rather that the train function as little as possible, as visitors use the train more than they do. The median housing value in Bay Head is $1.2 million.
  • Opponents also cite the project’s potential to contaminate Twilight Lake, which feeds into Barnegat Bay, Young reported.

In Detroit, a battle of the bees

  • Metro Detroit has imported about 12 million honey bees in the past five years to fill “pollination stations” in the city’s empty green spaces, The Wall Street Journal reported.
  • Though imported bees produce honey and help pollinate local farms, they also can displace local bees — and are much more likely to sting.
  • That’s annoyed both some locals and environmentalists, who call it “bee washing.” 
  • “The bees that are at risk of extinction,” one local scientist said, “are ones you can’t order by the millions.” 

Also, a recent study shows that Western wildfire and the global pandemic make for a dangerous combination.

Scientists looked into whether “wildfire smoke events may exacerbate the COVID-19 pandemic.” They reported an increase in case numbers and mortality, by as much as 10 percent, in a recent Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology article.

On that cheerful note, we’ll see you Wednesday. 

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