Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by The American Petroleum Institute — German election results put youth concerns in leading role

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by The American Petroleum Institute — German election results put youth concerns in leading role
© Getty images

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

Germany has elected its youngest parliament ever: a medley of young immigrants, skateboarders, queer activists, beer-pong players and at least one “militant cyclist,” according to The New York Times. 

All of them represent a “generational rift” at the center of Europe’s largest economy as two younger parties — the Free Democrats and the Greens — have elbowed their way into a “kingmaker” role alongside the technical winners, the Social Democrats.

If the Social Democrats want to form a majority and elect a chancellor, they will need the support of these parties and their young supporters — for whom climate is an overriding issue.

It’s existential,” first-time voter Roberta Müller told the Times of the climate question. “It doesn’t feel very democratic to me that older people get to decide on — and effectively destroy — our future.”

Today we’ll look at one trend bent on destroying our future — the increasingly fatal combination of population growth and temperature surges that are putting city inhabitants at risk. Then we’ll explore how a semiconductor shortage is shaking up the car industry and revealing a key weakness at the heart of modern civilization.

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.

Risk of deadly heat surges for city dwellers: study

Exposure to fatal levels of heat and humidity has tripled for city residents in recent decades, a new study has found. 

The rise in exposure to this dangerous pair —  which endangers almost a quarter of the world’s population — is the result of another combination: rising temperatures and urban population growth, according to the study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Immigration fuels an “urban heat island effect”: Hundreds of millions of people worldwide have migrated in recent decades from rural areas to cities, which now contain more than half of the global population. In those urban settings, researchers observed, sparse vegetation and abundant concrete tend to trap and concentrate heat.

That creates an urban heat island effect, which “increases morbidity and mortality,” lead author Cascade Tuholske, a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, said in a statement. “It impacts people’s ability to work, and results in lower economic output. It exacerbates pre-existing health conditions.”

Approaching a fatal exposure threshold: The researchers collected maximum daily heat and humidity measurements for 13,115 cities from 1983 to 2016. They defined extreme heat as 86 degrees Fahrenheit using a gauge that accounts for the physiological effects of high humidity.

At above that temperature on a humid day, most healthy people have trouble functioning outside and unhealthy individuals risk death.

The analysis found that the number of dangerous “person-days” — days per year that exceeded a heat exposure threshold, multiplied by the total population exposed — nearly tripled from 40 billion in 1983 to 119 billion in 2016. The authors noted that in the years following that timeframe, numerous heat waves have claimed lives in surprising places like the U.S. Northwest and southern Canada. 

While results varied among cities, the study concluded that urban population growth accounted for two-thirds of overall exposure increase, while warming was responsible for one-third. 




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.


Which cities were most affected? Those in lowest altitudes fared worst.

The worst-hit — at 13 feet above sea level — was Dhaka, Bangladesh, which saw an increase of 575 million person-days of extreme heat due to its “ballooning population,” according to the authors.

In some cities, the rise in people at risk was driven more by population growth: Shanghai and Guangzhou in China; Yangon, Myanmar; Bangkok, Thailand; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Hanoi, Vietnam; and Khartoum, Sudan.

In other cities, it was more driven by the magnitude of warming: Baghdad, Iraq; Cairo, Egypt; Kuwait City, Kuwait; Lagos, Nigeria; and Kolkata and Mumbai in India.

Warming itself was also responsible for increased heat exposure dangers in Europe, as population growth there has been relatively static, the study found.

What about the U.S.? Forty major cities have rapidly growing rates of heat exposure —mostly clustered within a few hundred miles of the Gulf Coast. Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio and Austin, Texas, as well as Pensacola, Fla., faced surges due to combined increases in population and heat.

For some cities, that risk was driven by their rapid population growth, like Las Vegas; Savannah, Ga.; and Charleston, S.C.. Meanwhile, fast-rising heat was the main driver in subtropical Baton Rouge, Houma and Lake Charles, La.; as well as Gulfport, Miss. 

“A lot of these cities show the pattern of how human civilization has evolved over the past 15,000 years,” said Tuholske. “Now, those areas may become uninhabitable. Are people really going to want to live there?” 

Well, maybe: “Texas has a lot of land, a lot of space, geographically,” Kevin Lanza, an assistant professor at UTHealth Houston School of Public Health, told Equilibrium. “It's primed, culturally and politically, to be growing into a space that has a greater population. You've seen this huge kind of huge move of the West Coast population to places like Austin, Dallas, Houston, and I suspect that's only going to continue moving forward.”

And yet, as Gulf Coast cities continue “growing really fast in population,” Portland State University Prof. Vivek Shandas warned that they are often being built “in ways that increase isolation of individuals through massive suburbanization.”

Last words: As a result, Shandas added, these individuals are “far away from services that they might need during an extreme heat event like cooling centers.”

To read the full story about the Columbia University heat exposure study, please click here. Look for a feature on Tuesday morning exploring how climate change, coupled with population growth, is making city life increasingly risky — as well as some adaptation strategies in the works.


Rethinking supply chain sustainability amid chip shortage

A global supply shortage of semiconductors has constricted every aspect of the global industrial economy that relies on computing — which is to say, virtually all of it. 

That’s led to cascading disruptions in industries from cars to medical devices — and highlighted one of the modern world’s key sustainability weaknesses.

What is a semiconductor? Also called a chip, they are devices that contain a microscopic labyrinth of tiny branching pathways that electrons can be shuttled between, modeling the yes/no switches that are the foundation of computing. 

They are nothing less than “the brains of our electronics … the lifeblood of modern society,” according to Popular Science, and they are found in Honda Civics, Quip toothbrushes, ResMed Inc. ventilators, Sony Playstation5s, General Electric wind turbines and virtually everything else with a plug or battery.

Why is there a shortage? Imagine an elephant being digested by a very large anaconda and you have a good picture of the state of things in the chip industry.

Early in the pandemic, factories across all sorts of supply chains shut down for months — including both microchip manufacturers and the industries dependent on them, like the car industry, as The New York Times reported.

As factories and offices shuttered and people moved indoors, demand spiked for all sorts of chip-bearing devices that let people work or play inside — like smartphones, computers, game consoles or Peloton stationary bikes. 

That was the elephant: a huge pulse of frustrated demand stoked by continued interruptions in supply as the pandemic kept resurfacing, leading to a glut of orders this year that the world’s chip manufacturers struggled to swallow. 

To make matters worse, the anaconda can’t stop eating: The consumer electronics boom was well underway when the car industry began restarting its production lines, only to find itself now bidding against the booming digital device industry for the still-reduced supply of microchips it needs to run the internal computers for its cars, the Times reported.


For the medical device industry — a small corner of the chip-purchasing industry that’s nonetheless faced long shipping delays and price hikes — the new reality has meant playing emotional hardball with suppliers, according to the Wall Street Journal. 

Mick Farrell of ResMed Inc., a ventilator manufacturer, told suppliers that “every single chip you give me gives the gift of breath to a person suffocating,” the Journal reported. 

Closures ripple through economy: Car companies, who need far more chips and can’t play that particular race, are cutting production. Toyota cut its annual supply production targets by 40 percent in August, according to The Drive. Companies have tried to restrict their limited supply of microchips to the most popular — and carbon-polluting — models like pickup trucks and SUVs, according to the Detroit Free Press.

That has meant a variety of downstream impacts: like a worldwide shortage of rental cars that drove surging summer prices above $120 per day — and which could be above $80 well into 2022, according to Kelley Blue Book.

One company has done well: Tesla surpassed both its totals from the same quarter last year and Wall Street’s expectations by rolling out 241,300 vehicles, according to the Associated Press.

That’s almost half as many as the far-larger General Motors, according to The Verge. Tesla has met production totals by “ sourcing different semiconductors and rewriting software on the fly to make those chips work in place of the ones not currently available,” The Verge reported.

Takeaway: Tesla’s innovation suggests one key to a more resilient supply chain: less specialization, not more, allowing retrofitting and reverse engineering to meet changing circumstances.



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

Keeping cups filled with wine and coffee in the Mediterranean

  • One winemaker in the southern French commune of Tresserre has equipped his vineyard with a rotating solar panel rooftop. Their goal: to insulate the grapes from harsh winters and protect them from intense sunlight during heatwaves, Reuters reported. 
  • "We'll need solutions if we want to keep our local grape varieties," winemaker Pierre Escudie, who grows Marselan, Grenache, Gris and Chardonnay grapes, told Reuters.
  • So-called “agrivoltaics” —which use panels to both shade crops and produce power — have become popular tools to combat the threat of climate change, according to Reuters.
  • Across the Mediterranean, the changing climate is letting one Sicilian grower realize his dream of cultivating coffee, The Guardian reported. 
  • Last spring, his 66 plants generated about 30 kilograms of coffee – after 30 years of failed trials on the Morettino family farm, according to The Guardian. 
  • “Our dream is to ... bring in coffee production for the first time within kilometers of continental Europe,” Andrea Morettino told The Guardian. 

Oft-sanctioned oil company behind California leak — and parent company’s stock plunge

‘Saildrone’ penetrates Category 4 Hurricane for first-time look inside such a storm

  • A 23-foot crewless vessel — called a “Saildrone” — was able to photograph the innards of a category 4 storm, as the drone pierced through the eyeball of Hurricane Sam on Thursday, according to The New York Times reported.
  • This footage was “a first-of-its-kind glimpse from inside a major hurricane,” the Times reported, citing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 
  • “We’ve shown for the first time that it’s possible to send an uncrewed, remote-controlled vehicle on the surface of the ocean directly into a major hurricane — one of the harshest environments on Earth,” Greg Foltz, a NOAA scientist involved with the project, told the Times. 


Please visit The Hill’s sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. Have a great weekend; we’ll see you on Tuesday.