Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by The American Petroleum Institute — Illegal pot farms dry up Western creeks

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by The American Petroleum Institute — Illegal pot farms dry up Western creeks
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Illegal pot farms dry up Western creeks

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

Illegal cannabis farms are drying up creeks and sucking up scarce groundwater out West in what Oregon Sheriff Dave Daniel called “just a blatant theft of water,” The Associated Press reported.

The Western states’ legalization of marijuana created two parallel industries: a legal one and a much bigger illegal one, which hides large unlicensed farms in the backcountry, where even a small extra drain can tip a stressed-out ecosystem into collapse, a study from University of Berkeley found.

Those impacts are magnified because peak cannabis demand comes in the dry season, the study found. But some farms are big; Daniel said he raided an illegal farm of 200,000 plants where a system of pumps and pipes went “into the ground so deep” that they reached the water table. 

Today we’ll follow world leaders to New York, where time is running out to craft some clear climate agreements before a  pivotal U.N. climate conference this November in Scotland. Then we’ll take a look at how the coronavirus pandemic has become a global garbage pandemic, in which cities are struggling to cope with excess waste amid recycling plant closures. 

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.


World needs consensus on ‘cash, cars, coal and trees’

As world leaders gather this week at the United Nations General Assembly for the first time in two years, climate will be a top priority on the agenda. 

Extreme weather continues to strike the globe and the U.N Climate Conference (COP26) in Glasgow is just weeks away — making the stakes higher than ever. A consensus on emissions reductions could build momentum for a serious deal at COP26. But a failure to do so could stymie efforts by both the public and private sectors to address the problem.

First steps: “We need urgent progress on cash, cars, coal and trees,” said Britain’s U.N. ambassador, Barbara Woodward, according to The Associated Press (AP).

That means climate aid for the developing world; phasing out the internal combustion engine; an agreement to end coal; and a global effort to preserve, rebuild and expand forests, not least to pull down carbon.

That work is particularly urgent because existing emissions cuts aren’t nearly enough to keep warming below 1.5 Celsius, according to a U.N report released on Friday that Zack Budryk covered in The Hill. 

But there are some big obstacles to closing that gap.

Competing crises: Even with the rising tide of climate-influenced disasters, the lag time between implementing reforms and seeing benefits makes it easy for climate concerns to be overshadowed by more immediate crises — like the pandemic, the missile crisis in the Korean peninsula and civil conflicts in Myanmar, Afghanistan and Ethiopia, the A.P. noted.

And climate risks are only making these problems worse. 

“A catastrophic pathway”: In speaking of the stakes, Secretary General António Guterres used the image of a looming “abyss.” 

Science says that we need a 45 percent cut in emissions by 2030 to reach carbon neutrality “by mid-century,” Guterres wrote in a statement. But according to that Friday U.N. report, emissions are expected to be up by 16 percent that year.

“The world is on a catastrophic pathway to 2.7°C of heating,” he wrote. “There is a high risk of failure of COP26.”



The Environmental Partnership recently released its annual report highlighting its new flare management program that reported a 50 percent reduction in flare volumes from 2019 to 2020. Read more.



There is also a chance for success: If, that is, “everyone comes together to promote more ambition, more cooperation and more credibility,” Guterres said. If only the world’s 20 richest countries reached net-zero by 2050, the world could keep warming to 1.7 Celsius, meaning 1.5 degrees is still in reach, according to a World Resource Institute report released on Friday.

One key focal point: The $100 billion per year in aid that the world’s richest countries have been promising since 2015 — but never delivered — to help the most vulnerable countries stave off the worst effects of climate change.

Instead, aid will have reached about $93 billion per year by 2025, according to nonprofit Oxfam International, meaning that poor countries will be “up to $75 billion short” in promised funds over the next six years.

"We need developed countries to find that $100 billion,” said British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, according to Bloomberg. 

U.S. special climate envoy John KerryJohn KerryOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by ExxonMobil — Climate divides conservative Democrats in reconciliation push Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Altria — Walrus detectives: Scientists recruit public to spot mammal from space 12 top U.S. officials to join Biden at major climate conference MORE was more hopeful, expressing confidence that the countries would “get it done by COP” and pledging that “the U.S. will do its part,” Bloomberg reported.

For one investor group, such international action can’t come soon enough. Hesitancy among governments to commit to a course of action on climate — and to establish clear rules on disclosing climate risk — is distorting the market and slowing the ability of business to adapt on their own, a group of investors managing more than about $2.5 trillion in assets wrote in a letter to U.K. climate czar and COP master of ceremonies Alok Sharma, according to Reuters.

Many investors want to put their money in solutions, but they’re hamstrung by the uncertainty and even fraud in the green investing market in the absence of government direction. 

Last Words: Absent government intervention, "if we choose to wait for companies to respond to investor pressure, it could take years to deliver the numbers we require to invest in a way that is aligned with the Paris goals," the letter said.

COVID-19 pandemic becomes a trash pandemic  

garbage dumpster

The coronavirus pandemic is now becoming a trash pandemic, as initial “overblown fears” that the virus could spread through surfaces created a long-lasting fear about handling nonhazardous trash, The New York Times reported. 

While packaging waste has surged, many recycling facilities around the world have endured shutdowns — leading reusable material to end up either incinerated or in landfills, according to the Times. Meanwhile, large volumes of personal protective equipment have been misclassified as hazardous and therefore burned.  

“A plastic pandemic”: Already last October, a Reuters investigation classified the status quo as a “plastic pandemic” — describing how demand for face shields, gloves, takeout containers and bubble wrap meant an increase in materials that could not be recycled.

Another consequence of the pandemic, Reuters reported at the time, was “a price war between recycled and new plastic,” — the latter of which is manufactured by the oil industry.

While crude oil prices have risen since October 2020 — and even more so since the beginning of the pandemic — they remain only about two-thirds of what they were a decade ago, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. And lagging prices are expected to drive the market growth of plastic bags — generating an annual investment growth in plastic bag manufacturing rate of about 4.2 percent from 2019 to 2027, the U.K.-based Global Banking & Finance Review reported.

Recycling plant closures: Global recycling rates took a hit over the past year — particularly in places that depend on hand sorting, according to the Times. In Brazil, for example, the production of recyclable material rose 25 percent in 2020 due mostly to online shopping, but many recycling programs were suspended for months on end, the Times reported.

During Brazil’s shutdowns, at least 16,000 fewer tons of recyclable material were in circulation — amounting to an economic loss of about $1.2 million, according to a recent study in Waste Disposal & Sustainable Energy, covered by the Times.



Then there’s the garbage itself. The inconveniently named Corona neighborhood in Queens has found its sidewalks literally buried in trash — the aftermath of March 2020 citywide service cuts, ABC7 reported. Many items strewn about the neighborhood — which has been among the hardest hit by the pandemic — require scheduled trash pickup, according to ABC.

“We found a TV — a big screen TV — we found windows from a building being dumped in there, a bowling ball,” New York City Council member Francisco Moya said at a recent press conference, broadcast by ABC. “This has to change.”

More garbage, more funding: Moya announced record-setting funds that will finance trucks that can navigate narrow streets, increase service hours and install enforcement cameras to catch illegal dumping, ABC reported.

"Garbage is where the people are, so the more people you have, the less opportunity and outlets for it to go somewhere, the more you're going to have a litter backup," Sanitation Commissioner Edward Grayson told ABC.

And it’s not just New York City. On the Big Island of Hawaii, on the other side of the country, transfer stations began shutting down several days per week earlier this month after many workers began calling in sick due to coronavirus exposure, West Hawaii Today reported.

But perhaps there’s hope amid all the rubbish. In Indonesia’s East Java island, one village has repurposed an assembly of old pots, pans and a TV monitor to create the “Delta robot” — used for services like spraying disinfectant and delivering food, the Bangkok Post reported. 

The friendly purple-and-white creature on wheels sports a rice cooker for a head and is operated by remote control with a 12-hour battery life, according to the Post. 

As it rolls down the village’s streets, the Post reported, the robot’s speaker greets residents with “assalamu’alaikum” (“Peace be with you”), followed by “A delivery is here. Get well soon.”




The Environmental Partnership recently released its annual report highlighting its new flare management program that reported a 50 percent reduction in flare volumes from 2019 to 2020. Read more.

Monday Miscellanies 

In which we take a look at how animals are engaging with their environments — at times ensuring sustainable ecology, at other times committing mass murder — around the world.

Grazing goats — and their poop — are mitigating wildfires and restoring arid soil

  • In hopes of mitigating wildfire outbreaks in years to come, goat herder Lani Malmberg is letting her 200 goats “eat whatever they find most appetizing” in the fields of Silverthorne, Colo. — a year after the state experienced its three largest wildfires in history, The New York Times reported. 
  • Malmberg, who travels the American West in a camper, uses her animals to restore fire-ravaged lands and make them less prone to the spread of blazes — a technique that she developed in graduate school, according to the Times. Private landowners and local governments hire her through word-of-mouth recommendations.
  • Confined by an electric fence, the goats consume the brush and deposit their resultant waste on the land, increasing the soil’s potential to retain water, the Times reported. 
  • Malmberg co-founded the nonprofit Goatapelli Foundation in 2020 to train people how to use goats in wildfire prevention. Thus far, according to the Times, only a few of her 200 participants have launched their own businesses, as startup costs require about $360,000.

Bee swarm kills 63 endangered penguins in South Africa

  • A swarm of Cape honeybees has killed 63 endangered African penguins on a beach near Cape Town, South Africa, Agency France-Presse (AFP) reported, as published in The Guardian.
  • “After tests, we found bee stings around the penguins’ eyes,” David Roberts, a clinical veterinarian, at the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds, told A.F.P. “There were also dead bees on the scene.”
  • Acknowledging that such a mass killing “is a very rare occurrence” and describing the incident as “a fluke,” Roberts stressed that further deaths like this cannot continue to occur, as the penguins are a protected species. 
  • Postmortem examinations showed that all the penguins had suffered multiple bee stings, South African National Parks said, according to AFP.


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