The Hill's Sustainability Report: Coronavirus could keep developing nations from key climate talks

The Hill's Sustainability Report: Coronavirus could keep developing nations from key climate talks
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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:

The British government has touted this fall’s United Nations climate summit in Glasgow as “the most inclusive ever” — but an inability to access coronavirus vaccinations, coupled with international travel bans, may prevent some delegates from attending, The Washington Post reported.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised that his country and its allies would provide full vaccination to each negotiator, observer and accredited journalist who could not get a vaccine in their home country, according to the Post. But the time to get inoculated before November’s U.N. Climate Change Conference is rapidly running out — and those vaccines have yet to materialize.

That means the least-developed nations face a double-bind. They are “forecast to shoulder an outsize burden in a warming world,” the Post reported. However, their vaccination rates hover below 2 percent, jeopardizing their attendance at a summit whose decisions will disproportionately impact them.

Today we’ll turn again to the warming West, where the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation declared the Colorado River’s first-ever federal shortage on Monday. Then we’ll travel to the U.K., where the government is wading into one of the biggest battles in clean energy: hydrogen versus electricity. 

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

Let’s get to it.

Historic water cuts hit a thirsty West

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has announced a water shortage for the drought-stricken Colorado River for the first time in history — meaning hard times for Central Arizona’s farmers.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced future cutbacks on Monday after an unusually dry spring left the total Colorado River basin storage at 40 percent capacity — a decline of 49 percent from this time last year, Zack Budryk reported for The Hill.

“Like much of the West, and across our connected basins, the Colorado River is facing unprecedented and accelerating challenges,” Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo said in a Bureau of Reclamation news release.

How bad are things? Pretty bad. Spring runoff into the Lake Powell storage reservoir from the Upper Basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — amounted to just 26 percent of the average, the Bureau of Reclamation said. The amount that would have flowed to Lake Mead, which stores water for the Lower Basin states — Arizona, Nevada and California — is about 32 percent of the annual average.

So what is actually going to happen, and when? Lake Powell will release just 7.48 million acre-feet in “water year 2022” (Oct. 1, 2021 through Sept. 30, 2022) — a 9 percent drop from this year’s 8.23 million acre feet.

Lake Mead, meanwhile, will adjust to its first-ever “Level 1 Shortage Condition” for calendar year 2022 (Jan. 1, 2022 through Dec. 31, 2022). Three places will face hefty cuts, as per domestic and international agreements that stem back to the 1944 Water Treaty with Mexico.

Those cuts are:

  • Arizona: 512,000 acre-feet, approximately 18 percent of the state’s annual allotment
  • Nevada: 21,000 acre-feet, about 7 percent of the state’s annual apportionment
  • Mexico: 80,000 acre-feet, approximately 5 percent of the country’s annual share 

Arizona is hit hardest, losing just less than 8 percent of its state water supply, the Arizona Department of Water Resources said in a news release.

In addition, the shortage will also eliminate about 30 percent of the Colorado River supply to the critically important Central Arizona Project (CAP), the Arizona Department of Water Resources news release said. 

CAP is the 336-mile conduit system that conveys water to central and southern Arizona — where the brunt of desert agriculture occurs.


For farmers, the cuts could be dire. The reductions will eliminate about 60 percent of current CAP supplies in Pinal County, the Arizona Daily Star reported, citing Paul Orme, a Phoenix attorney who represents four central Arizona irrigation districts.

That could drastically reduce water available to farmers. And assuming drought conditions persist, an inter-state deal called the 2019 Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan could lead these same farmers to lose their entire CAP supply by 2023. 

They would still be allowed to drill new wells, but those wells would only generate about 28 percent of what they received from CAP, Orme said, according to the Daily Star. 

“It will be interesting to see what materializes in terms of investments in irrigation technologies that use less water, changes in cropping patterns, and/or fallowing lands,” Sharon Megdal, director of the University of Arizona’s Water Resources Research Center, told Equilibrium.  

What does this mean for the future? The Bureau of Reclamation’s declaration “is a stark reminder that the over-allocation of the Colorado River System must be reckoned with,” Megdal said.   

While the Central Arizona farming sector will bear the brunt of these initial reductions, models indicate high probabilities that further cutbacks will occur in a few years — affecting municipal, industrial and tribal users as well, according to Megdal. 

Both water managers and users will need “to prepare for these more adverse eventualities,” with continued adaptation efforts occurring on both the supply and demand “sides of the equation,” she said.

Last words: “It will not be easy, especially with all the uncertainty, but I do think that the region will demonstrate its resilience through what I will call innovative adaptability,” Megdal added. 

For a deep dive into one such innovation, please read Sharon’s new story in Ensia, on how desalination might play a role in revitalizing a parched Colorado River Delta — mirroring lessons learned by unlikely partners in the Middle East.

Clean energy cold war: Hydrogen versus electricity

A new hydrogen power plan from the U.K. government has avoided two treacherous pitfalls in one of green energy’s most contested grudge matches: Hydrogen versus electric power.

But as the U.S. prepares to spend $9 billion on hydrogen research under the bipartisan infrastructure plan, it’s worth paying attention to both.

First steps: The British government wants the country to produce 5 gigawatts of “low-carbon” hydrogen by 2030, according to a strategy document released on Tuesday — approximately equivalent to the energy needs of 3 million households, The Guardian reported.

That fuel would largely be dispatched to the sectors most difficult to fully electrify: Industry, the power grid and some forms of heavy transport. 

Tiptoeing around controversy: That neatly avoids some of hydrogen’s most controversial applications, said Jan Rosenow, Europe Director of the International Regulatory Assistance Project, which works to decarbonize the world’s largest economies.

“A bad strategy would have been: hydrogen used everywhere, to heat homes, in personal transport — that it is a panacea,” Rosenow told Equilibrium, 

A blocking act by fossil fuels? Using hydrogen for those two applications only makes sense if “you're an oil and gas company,” analyst Michael Liebreich told clean energy trade journal Recharge in June. 

“If it works, then you're embedded in the hydrogen industry — but if it doesn't work, you've delayed the transition to the thing you don't make, which is electricity.”


A contest over heating: In Britain, natural gas producers like the idea of subbing in hydrogen for the existing gas infrastructure. But this is more complicated than it sounds: hydrogen molecules are far smaller than natural gas molecules, Rosenow said — meaning the existing infrastructure risks leaking what the U.S. Department of Labor described as a highly flammable gas.

Also, producing zero-emission hydrogen for home heating costs 2.7 times more than electric heating, according to a study by University College London.

And a contest over cars: In the U.S., car manufacturer Toyota has pushed back on electric car mandates that it sees as a risk to its hydrogen business, as we covered in July.

“What is clear is that urban transport — buses that operate the same routes in the city, and can be charged in a depot at night, or personal vehicles — will most likely not be serviced by hydrogen,” Rosenow said.

At current prices, a kilogram of hydrogen delivers slightly more energy than a kilogram of diesel, but costs four times more, The Associated Press reported.

So what should hydrogen be used for? Only the “unavoidable,” according to Liebreich. 

His office has put out the “Hydrogen Ladder,” which ascends from industries he calls “uncompetitive” — metro trains, domestic heating — to those he calls “unavoidable,” like long-haul aviation and fertilizer production.

First in line for greening, Rosenow said: The around 75 million tons of industrial hydrogen (according to the AP) currently produced from fossil fuels like gas and coal. And barring a huge breakthrough in battery technology, hydrogen could also be what gas and oil are now: A stable store of “dispatchable” power that can be held for seasons or even years, he added.

A looming problem: The U.K. largely restricted its hydrogen strategy to the “unavoidable” side of Liebreich’s ladder. 

But another big question looms — where will that hydrogen come from? Will it be truly “green,” produced from water via wind or solar energy? Or will it be “blue,” generated from ammonia or natural gas, with leakage at a minimum and emissions somehow captured and stored?

The U.K. government currently plans a “twin track” approach that will include both — four parts blue to one part green, according to Reuters. That’s a “second-rate solution to the climate emergency,” Juliet Philips of climate think-tank E3G told the Times.

Takeaway: Expect all these fights to be mirrored in the U.S. the moment the bipartisan infrastructure bill passes.

And whatever future breakthroughs hydrogen tech may hold, the current U.K. strategy, as described by Rosenow, is a prod to “get started with what we know works” — building far more clean electricity capacity.

Tech Tuesday

Administration: Solar could provide up to 40 percent of U.S. power by 2035

  • Solar energy could generate up to 40 percent of power in the U.S. by 2035 — a massive jump from the 3 percent of generation today, according to a White House memo.
  • Department of Energy officials cited a pre-publication study from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which showed that solar would need to grow at a 300 to 400 percent rate to attain this market share, The Hill reported.
  • Among the strategies to help further this goal include clean energy tax credits, investment in the grid and increased deployment of solar facilities in low-income communities, the report said.

Airlines turn to tech solutions for climate uncertainty

  • The global airline industry is trusting tech as it flies into a future of ever-more extreme weather, the Financial Times reported.
  • This means integrating predictive technology that enables American Airlines and United Airlines to “allow work on the tarmac to continue for longer ahead of a brewing thunderstorm,” and a “self-parking system” that lets United planes taxi in “even when storms prevent ramp agents from guiding them to gates," according to the Times.
  • Weather-related delays have been on the upswing for two decades, while hundreds of flights across the U.S. were canceled this summer due to inclement conditions, the Times reported.
  • But one aviation analyst argued that the bigger issue is the lack of manpower when such a crisis arises. “There’s going to be extra cost either way if — and this is a big if — the airlines decide they’re going to address it,” the analyst told the Times.

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