Equilibrium & Sustainability

The Hill’s Sustainability Report: This plastic additive is ecstasy for hermit crabs


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

For virtually all species, plastic pollution is bad news.

But a recent study of 40 hermit crabs off the northern England coast found they were “excited” by oleamide, a plastic additive found in — for example — yogurt containers, which is released underwater.

Oleamide is a sexual pheromone for some insects, and it also raises the respiration rate of hermit crabs, “which indicates excitement,” The Washington Post reported.

Up on land, we’re tracking the rollout of the nation’s biggest autonomous electric vehicle shuttle network — and delving into some practical insight for business owners and policymakers wondering what to do with yesterday’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.

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.


Nation’s biggest autonomous electric shuttle network rolls out in Colorado

The country’s biggest fleet of low-speed, autonomous electric shuttles hit the road Tuesday in a major step for the electric vehicle (EV) sector. The unveiling in Colorado adds momentum to an industry that is poised to get a major boost from the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress. 

A first step: “We will write the next chapter in the world’s transportation history — in a time when we need a new chapter desperately,” Tyler Svitak, executive director of the Colorado Smart Cities Alliance, said at the opening ceremony.

The EV shuttle system will connect Colorado School of Mines students and staff, as well as members of the public, from key spots in the city of Golden to points on campus for at least the next year.

Through the Autonomous Vehicles Colorado (AvCo) partnership, the shuttles — called the Mines Rover — will navigate through regular traffic using a fleet of nine driverless, zero-emission EZ10 shuttles from the French company EasyMile. 

So what was the ride like? Sharon headed down to Golden — about halfway between Denver and Boulder — to experience her first ride. Traveling in the air-conditioned, rectangular cuboid was a smooth journey, although this first-time passenger’s heart skipped a beat as the vehicle glided down the school’s cobblestone slope toward the Rocky Mountain Foothills. 

But with just a slightly audible hum, the vehicle drifted toward its pre-programmed destination and returned to its origin without a hitch.

How do the shuttles work? The shuttles employ advanced sensors, cameras and LiDAR, which the AvCo partners said limit the risk of human error.

Each Mines Rover, charged overnight by Siemens VersiCharge AC chargers, can hold up to six seated passengers, as well as a service ambassador — a Mines student — trained to oversee operations.

The shuttles are slated to operate along three fixed routes and stop every five to 10 minutes every weekday. Local demonstrations have already occurred at Denver International Airport and at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, also in Golden.


Who’s behind the AvCo partnership? A long list of municipal, academic and business partners, like EasyMile, Siemens eMobility solutions, Stantec GenerationAV, Panasonic and HxGN SmartNet.

A perfect proving ground: The shuttles will provide a “last-mile service” that gets students from mass transit stops to school, Gary Bowersock, associate vice president of infrastructure and operations at Mines.

The city of Golden provides an ideal “use case” for the system, due to its relatively small size and proximity to a college campus, according to Svitak, from the Colorado Smart Cities Alliance, a sponsor of the shuttle system. 

Are the shuttles safe? The system has a  “level-4 highly automated driving system,” Svitak said — beating out other ostensibly “full self-driving” vehicles, in which drivers are still largely responsible for operations. 

But should a collision occur, it would happen at low speed: The Mines Rover will run at a top speed of 12 miles per hour, along routes in which top traffic speeds are 25 miles per hour, he said.

How does this play into the national EV push? The Mines Rover shuttles are rolling out as President Biden is pushing for an increased electric vehicle presence in the market — urging automakers last week to make half of new vehicle sales electric by 2030. 

Meanwhile, the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which passed in the Senate on Tuesday morning, includes $7.5 billion for electric vehicle chargers, as well as $2.5 for zero-emissions buses. This legislation will now move to the House for discussion. 

Innovation as “key”: As Congress moves forward not only with this legislation, but also with a broader Democratic budget reconciliation bill and a transportation bill that recently garnered House approval, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) saw technology like the rover fitting in with these initiatives.

“We are going to get those things passed,” Perlmutter said at the launch ceremony. “And key to it will be innovation like we have here with this autonomous shuttle.”

Click here to read the full story on the Mines Rover shuttle launch.


Businesses need to curb emissions, track risk across supply chain

Businesses need to “get on the same page” about climate risks and emissions standards, sustainable finance specialist Lihuan Zhou of the World Resources Institute told Equilibrium.

First steps: The IPCC report released yesterday was “a stark warning” for the business community, Zhou said.

That warning has two distinct aspects. Businesses need to cut emissions as quickly as possible and audit their looming risks across entire supply chains.

Investing in cutting emissions: First, Zhou said, “companies need to set science-based emissions targets to map out a pathway for close, medium and long term, so that investors can act on that information.”

The finance industry should be “looking to 2060, 2100,” Sebastian Mernild, one IPCC author, told Bloomberg Green. In that time frame, every fractional degree of temperature rise, Mernild said, will be “very costly.”

Scopes of disclosure: The EPA lists three relevant “scopes” of emissions, which have caught on in the broader investment community:

  • Scope 1: What a company emits directly in making its product.
  • Scope 2: What is emitted on a company’s behalf — such as by electric utilities — to provide energy to make its products.
  • Scope 3: Emissions across the rest of the supply chain, by the company’s suppliers or customers, as a result of their product.

Here’s a clear example of the distinction: Oil giant Exxon Mobil is weighing a commitment to go “net zero” by 2050, Zack Budryk reported for The Hill. 

But it would only be net-zero for Scopes 1 and 2 — meaning Exxon’s net-zero pledge wouldn’t count emissions from the oil burned by its customers. For the pledge to have any meaning, Zhou said, “consumers have to be calculated in their emissions.”

Changing on paper won’t work: An oil company that ignores Scope 3 can behave similarly to TC Energy, one-time proprietor of the Keystone XL pipeline, which boasted that the diluted bitumen fuel that moved down its pipelines would be powered by renewable energy — even though the fuel inside is among the world’s dirtiest, as Reuters reported.

But oil companies that factor in Scope 3, by contrast, are led to the same conclusion reached by the International Energy Agency in May: spending on new oilfield development has to stop now, Zhou said.


​​How will we know such net-zero promises are meaningful? They need to be legally binding, Zhou said, which means they must be held to the same level of legal liability as other key financial information, like earnings per share.

Risky business: “Climate risk will get worse before it gets better,” Zhou said. But in the absence of a “systematic” understanding of risks, he added, companies have had to make their own, resulting in a confusion of standards.

The IPCC has fixed this, he said, by providing — for the first time — a single list of 35 “climatic impact-drivers” on Page 34 of its Summary for Policymakers (PDF).

But important gaps remain: Companies need to be aware of the possibility of serious risks that are hard to assess in numeric terms, Zhou said.

The IPCC particularly noted:

  • Compounding risks: What happens, as in the Western U.S. or Mediterranean now, when distinct risks — fire, drought, heat waves — pile on together?
  • Tail risks: Low likelihood, high severity events, like the sudden collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and a rapid 16-foot sea level rise

For such unlikely, but potentially devastating events, traditional quantitative analysis is very difficult, Zhou said. Instead, businesses need to collaborate with governments and the scientific community in new “cross domain” bodies to make contingency plans for a future of growing uncertainty.

Takeaway: Such bodies largely don’t exist, but he offered some models. For a cross-sector governance body, there’s the Network for Greening the Financial System, which unites 80 central banks. For a way to think about systemic risk, there’s the (not climate focused) International Organization for Standardization’s standards for business continuity management.

Torrid Tuesday

A tempest of high-temperature developments torments a thirsty region.

Should the Forest Service let remote wildfires burn?

  • The Forest Service itself says no. After being criticized by California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) for a “wait and see” approach that let a small-out of the way blaze explode into the Tamarack fire at the end of July, the agency announced it would make suppressing such fires a top priority, according to Inside Climate News.
  • The policy will lead to “a higher firefighter body count” as firefighters challenge blazes in remote, roadless terrain — leaving little manpower for breakout fires, Timothy Ingalsbee, executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology, told Inside Climate.
  • But the biggest danger may be long term, as remote fires that could clear out brush continue to be suppressed — raising the odds of another Tamarack-level fire. “When we suppress fire, we aren’t preventing fire,” James Johnston of Oregon State University’s College of Forestry and the lead author of a recent Environmental Research Letters study on the subject told Inside Climate. “We’re just deferring fire.”  

Dry Californian town asks tourists to conserve water

  • The Californian coastal town of Mendocino is posting signs on portable toilets and picket fences asking tourists to “please conserve water,” The Associated Press reported. 
  • Mendocino’s existing water crisis was made worse in recent weeks, after the city of Fort Bragg — its backup water supplier — told officials that there would be a significant reduction in drinking water reserves.
  • Circumstances have become so dire that hotels have closed their lobby bathrooms and stopped watering their gardens, while private businesses have already started ordering water from elsewhere, the AP reported.

Bipartisan Senate group urges administration to combat jet fuel shortages amid wildfire season

  • A bipartisan group of Senators, led by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) urged the Biden administration to alleviate jet fuel shortages that are plaguing wildland firefighting services, in a letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Tuesday.
  • “In 2021, there are already over 108 large fires burning in 15 states and the need for an aerial response to fight these fires is a critical and much-needed tool,” the senators wrote. “We are concerned that fuel shortages could lead to the grounding of federal, state, and contracted aircrafts and hurt the ability for initial fire attack.”
  • The senators requested a response from the administration no later than Aug. 23, regarding plans in place to address shortages, as well as how a coordinated firefighting effort would occur in the case of both fuel shortages and simultaneous blazes.

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

Tags Deb Haaland Ed Perlmutter Gavin Newsom Joe Biden Lloyd Austin Pete Buttigieg Ron Wyden Tom Vilsack

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