Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Southern Company — How Martian biofuel could transport humans

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Southern Company — How Martian biofuel could transport humans
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Today is Thursday. Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. Subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup

As some humans scramble to safeguard Earth, others are blasting themselves off into space — but the question remains, even if humans reach their nearest neighbor, how do they get back home?

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology think they may have found the answer: a form of extraterrestrial biofuel.

Current plans for Martian rocket departures rely on engines fueled by liquid oxygen (LOX) and methane as a propellant, which would need to be transported from Earth and could cost up to $8 billion, according to Georgia Tech. And though NASA has proposed converting Martian carbon dioxide into LOX through a chemical reaction on-site, methane propellant would still be required.

To generate methane, the researchers have proposed using native Martian resources, along with algae and engineered E. coli from Earth. The algae would pull carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere and use sunlight to create sugars, which E. coli would then convert into a Mars-specific rocket propellant, according to their study, published in Nature Communications.

Back on Earth, we’re looking at how the nation’s emergency managers are pivoting to a period of permanent crisis. Then we’ll turn our attention to a more positive development — a look at how some major U.S. cities may exceed international climate targets in the next few years.

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.


FEMA faces a world of semi-permanent crisis

The past two years have seen a string of accelerating climate-driven disasters mixed with a grinding, lethal pandemic, all of which has overwhelmed local systems already dealing with more insidious crises.

But these crises are helping spur the U.S. toward a revolution in emergency management, Deanne Criswell, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), told Equilibrium. 

First steps: Emergency managers are logistical first responders: they coordinate fire, public works, medical response and emergency housing to cope with and prepare for disaster.

“They have been engaged in the opioid crisis, they've been engaged in homelessness, they've been engaged in civil unrest,” Criswell said.

Breaking down silos: Right now, she said, other public services such as police, fire and emergency medical services “work really well when they're managing the problems that don't need to go outside of their lane,” Criswell said.

“But they need to start to cross-collaborate, especially when we're talking about large-scale problems.”

Where FEMA fits in best is in deploying its resources to knit those services together, Criswell said. 

A tapestry of working relationships: The word Criswell kept returning to is “interoperability,” the idea that emergency managers weave together a tapestry of working relationships and institutional knowledge that all parties can deploy when disaster comes — or use to head them off.

This builds on Obama-era FEMA reforms: During the tenure of former administrator Craig Fugate, officials pushed a “whole of community” approach to avoid debacles like the response to Hurricane Katrina. 

By working more closely with large nonprofit “voluntary organizations” like Catholic Charities and the American Red Cross, FEMA could plug into the experience and resources that already exist in communities where disasters were happening, said Kim Burgo of Catholic Charities.

Before Fugate’s reforms, Catholic Charities and FEMA would have been “siloed,” Burgo said. “They do their thing, we do ours,” she said.

But when Superstorm Sandy hit New York, that working relationship let the groups combine forces: FEMA brought resources, but “didn’t have to search for the location to distribute them.”



At Southern Company, we achieved our interim net zero energy goal ten years early. Today, we continue our work toward a net zero future.


Criswell wants to build on these reforms: Now the agency needs to devote more efforts toward mitigating crises before they happen, she said. That means deepening relationships with local civil society groups — efforts bolstered by FEMA’s ability to offer slices of the $3.46 billion in hazard mitigation money made available in the COVID-19 relief packages.

“These are big dollars. System-level, major investment dollars that will allow your communities to tackle larger projects,” Criswell said at a National Emergency Managers Association conference earlier this month.

Correcting problems with access: Those resources might also help communities access FEMA benefits, a process often subject to criticism and calls for reform.

“It takes special skill to access individual assistance,” said Aaron Clark-Ginsberg of RAND Corp. “Better-resourced communities can better access FEMA processes.”

How so? FEMA’s move to automated, online benefit applications, for example, didn’t consider the wide disparities in Internet access, and the know-how to use it — or what would happen if the grid was knocked out, as it was in much of Louisiana after Hurricane Ida.

“There’s no cellphones, no power. How are they supposed to apply?” asked Burgo.

But maintaining a partnership with FEMA enables groups like Catholic Charities to “set up areas where people can come and get assistance and information, get access to the internet, or help them ourselves,” according to Burgo. 

Last words: “We have to have this cultural shift, this mind shift of forcing people to think about what the potential could be, and not just relying on what we know,” Criswell said.

To read the full story in The Hill’s first responders series this week, please click here.

US cities on track to surpass Paris targets


Twenty-five major U.S. cities are on track to collectively reduce their greenhouse gas emission by 32 percent by 2025 — surpassing international climate agreement goals, a new report has found.

Together, these 25 American cities are expected to reduce 74 million metric tons of carbon emissions through 2030, while achieving targets set in the 2015 Paris Agreement midway through the decade, according to the report, issued by Bloomberg Philanthropies.

The cities participated in the Bloomberg American Cities Climate Challenge, launched in 2019 “with the goal of turbocharging” environmental action already taking place on a municipal level, as The Hill reported.

Exceeding commitments: “Cities play a critical role in the fight against climate change,” Michael BloombergMichael BloombergHow Biden can correct the course in his second year Biden's Jan. 6 speech was a missed opportunity to unite the nation Democrats must face the reality of their Latino voter problem MORE, former mayor of New York City and the U.N. secretary-general’s special envoy on climate ambition and solutions, said in a statement.

The Climate Challenge, he said, shows “that it’s possible for the U.S. not just to meet our commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement — but to exceed them.”

A quick refresher on those pledges: At the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP21) in 2015, the U.S. set a goal of achieving an economy-wide target of reducing emissions by 26-28 percent below its 2005 level in 2025.

Each participating country submitted its own nationally determined contributions in Paris, with the overall aim of keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). But a U.N. report from earlier this week, published ahead of next week’s COP26 in Glasgow, showed that the world is collectively “nowhere near” that critical goal.

Revamping climate policies on a local scale: The cities that participated in the Climate Challenge approved 54 major green building, energy and transportation policies and launched 71 new climate programs — integrating more than 800 megawatts of renewable power, developing 510 miles of bike lanes and deploying more than 1,1000 electric vehicles, according to the report.

“Cities acting together can have a powerful impact on our ability to protect the environment and shrink our collective carbon footprint,” Muriel BowserMuriel BowserMask rules spark political games and a nasty environment in the House DC adding vaccine, testing centers as region's COVID-19 death rate increases Feehery: DC will become the inverse of West Berlin MORE (D), mayor of Washington, D.C., said in a statement.

D.C., along with Seattle, Los Angeles and Portland, Ore., have also put equity at the center of their climate initiatives, reworking policies like congestion pricing — such as rush-hour travel surcharges — and creating zero-emissions zones with local community leaders, the study said.


EV programs for all: Both Boston and the Twin Cities launched new electric car sharing programs for underserved communities, with the goal of improving transportation access, according to the report.

The Minnesota system, called the EV Spot Network, will “help us build an even more sustainable and resilient city for our children and grandchildren,” Melvin Carter (D), mayor of Saint Paul, Minn., said in a statement. 

Push for renewables: Cincinnati broke ground on the country’s largest municipal solar farm, John Cranley (D), the city’s mayor, said in a statement. Doing so, he added, is “a major step toward our 100% renewable energy goal and a driver of new, green jobs.”

The city of Denver, according to the report, voted on a sales-tax increase that will bring $40 million in annual revenue to fund climate projects. At least half will be “directed toward at-risk low-income neighborhoods and communities of color,” said Michael Hancock (D), the city’s mayor.

Who else made the list: Other cities included Albuquerque, N.M.; Atlanta, Ga.; Austin, Texas; Charlotte, N.C.; Chicago, Ill.; Columbus, Ohio; Honolulu, Hawaii; Indianapolis, Ind.; Orlando, Fla.; Philadelphia, Pa.; Pittsburgh, Pa.; San Diego, Calif.; San Jose, Calif.; St. Louis, Mo.; and St. Petersburg, Fla.

Last words: “Cities stand on the frontlines of the climate emergency,” said Eric GarcettiEric GarcettiBass raises nearly million since launching LA mayor campaign Los Angeles mayor nominates city's first female fire chief Former aide says she felt 'abandoned' by Democrats who advanced Garcetti nomination as ambassador to India MORE (D), mayor of Los Angeles. “Fighting this crisis is a moral necessity, an environmental imperative, and an economic opportunity.”



At Southern Company, we achieved our interim net zero energy goal ten years early. Today, we continue our work toward a net zero future.

Thursday Throwdowns 

President Joe Biden participates virtually in the U.S.-ASEAN Summit

A look at various battles over sustainability issues.

Climate keepers and cuts in Biden’s spending plan

Break up Shell before competing priorities swamp company, says activist investor 

  • A plunge in stock value at oil major Shell has provided the grist for a radical proposal by activist investors at Third Point, which owns about $750 million in company stock: break Shell up, The New York Times reported.
  • Third Point has proposed splitting off Shell’s traditional oil and gas business from its renewable energy and liquified natural gas business, according to an investor letter from CEO Daniel S. Loeb.
  • These two business lines have radically different needs that compete with each other, which may help explain why they have had trouble attracting investments, Loeb wrote.
  • “As the saying goes, you can’t be all things to all people,” he added. “In trying to do so, Shell has ended up with unhappy shareholders who have been starved of returns and an unhappy society that wants to see Shell do more to decarbonize.”

Fossil fuel companies called on carpet by House Democrats 

And ICYMI: The U.N. has recruited an unlikely prehistoric subject to warn humans about the future — releasing a video in which a dinosaur tells humans to “save your species,” as The Hill reported.

“You’re headed for a climate disaster, and yet every year, governments spend hundreds of billions of public funds on fossil fuel subsidies,” the dinosaur said. “Imagine if we had spent hundreds of billions per year subsidizing giant meteors.”


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