Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Southern Company — China’s president to video in for climate confab

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

China’s president, Xi Jinping, will not be attending next week’s U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26) in person, and instead will appear at the Glasgow summit by video link, The Guardian reported, citing the country’s foreign ministry.

The announcement ends weeks of speculation over whether Xi would attend, as China — the world’s biggest carbon emitter — continues to face pressure from other world leaders on climate, according to The Guardian.

The country published its national emissions reduction plan on Thursday, but analysts said the document showed little progress, The Guardian reported. Meanwhile, China is launching so much new coal production that it could increase the planet’s output of carbon dioxide by a full percentage point, Jan Ivar Korsbakken, an Oslo-based researcher, told The New York Times.

Xi is not the only major world leader staying home from COP26; Russian President Vladimir Putin is also attending by video link, while Queen Elizabeth is recuperating from health issues. Nonetheless, more than a dozen world leaders — including President Biden — will be appearing in person.

Today we’ll look at some of the key issues to expect at COP26, including that all-important coal question. Then we’ll close out our week of special first responder coverage with a conversation with a wildland firefighter who is planning — and implementing — prescribed burns on the ground.

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.


Climate conference focused on concrete steps 

World leaders, delegates and activists are on their way to the long-awaited U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, U.K., where they will seek to achieve emissions reductions agreements capable of keeping global warming below 1.5 to 2 Celsius (2.7 to 3.6 Fahrenheit).

The talks take place under a pall of domestic diffidence and energy crisis in a world “still careening towards climate catastrophe,” as U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres said in Rome on Friday at the Group of 20 (G-20) summit, a gathering of the world’s most wealthy economies. 

“There is a serious risk that Glasgow will not deliver,” he added.

A grim background: The world is cutting emissions, the U.N. reported on Tuesday — but not nearly enough.

Greenhouse gas concentrations hit record levels this year, and current proposed cuts will still lead to 2.7 Celsius (4.8 Fahrenheit) in warming by centuries’ end, the U.N. reported.

That would be enough to lead (for example) to a permanent collapse of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, or a dramatic sea level rise that would continue for centuries, according to the 2021 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.

To avoid or slow that level of warming requires dramatic emission cuts to help meet the deadline of 45 percent emissions cuts by 2030, according to The Associated Press.

This can only be done by burning fewer fossil fuels — which means different things for different countries.

For the countries that can afford to burn (or produce) natural gas, it means cutting down on this habit. That’s because methane, a prime component of natural gas, is dozens of times more potent at causing short term warming than carbon dioxide, the AP reported.

For everyone else, it means cutting coal, and for developing economies that may be a nonstarter — particularly in Asia, where nearly 300 new coal plants are underway in India and China alone and demand for the fuel is rising, Reuters reported.

Countries from India to Australia have balked at calls to phase the fuel out, Reuters reported — and even in the U.S., virtually every pound of coal that will be produced through 2022 has a buyer, according to Bloomberg.



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


Climate adaptation funding: The need to phase the developing world off of fossil fuels to avoid exacerbating a crisis that Western (and Chinese) emissions largely caused means that climate aid will likely be a sticking point of talks, The Associated Press reported.

An atmosphere of mistrust: Finally, hanging over the conference are tensions between China and the U.S.: the world’s two superpowers and largest emitters. 

President Biden comes in with a framework deal that would offer nearly half a trillion dollars in subsidies and tax credits for an energy transition and climate adaptation — but the fate of his deal is still uncertain, Reuters reported.

And China reaffirmed on Thursday that it plans for emissions to rise until 2030, with “carbon neutrality” by 2060, the AP reported.

Not “all or nothing”: The pressure on delegates is part of the problem, as the media, COP26 organizers and the British government have “vastly overstated the summit’s import,” Agence France-Presse reporter Patrick Galey wrote on Twitter.

“It is not ‘the last chance to save the world,’” Galey wrote. “It is a negotiating forum with built in deficiencies.”

Billing it as “an all-or-nothing event … is false and only benefits large emitters, who will weaponize this narrative to shirk responsibilities back home when Glasgow inevitably falls short of its own (impossible) expectations,” he wrote.

Last words: “These crises present us with the need to take decisions, radical decisions that are not always easy,” Pope Francis said. “Moments of difficulty like these also present opportunities, opportunities that we must not waste.”


Fighting the fires of the future

Up against chaotic climate conditions that are fueling increasingly intense wildfires, the firefighters and land managers working to prevent such blazes are facing a tactical conundrum. 

“Just because we’re thinning trees out and we’re clearing the forest and we’re making it look like it would have looked 150 years ago, does not mean that those trees are in tip-top shape,” Jon McDuffey, a fire and fuels technician for the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), told Equilibrium.

After delving this week into the health and financial challenges that wildland firefighters are facing, we’re closing out The Hill’s week of first responder coverage — in honor of Thursday’s National First Responder Day — by speaking with McDuffey, who has been at the forefront of wildland firefighting for the better part of two decades.

While he began his career in 2000 on a “hotshot crew” — a highly skilled team that conducts tactical assignments in the hottest parts of wildfires — he has also spent time as a “smokejumper,” parachuting into the site of a blaze. Today, however, he is working in Washington’s Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest on prescribed burns, in hopes of thwarting future blazes.

A dual role: McDuffey described his position as “a dual-role job,” which involves both planning and carrying out prescribed burns in the off season. On top of that, he said he also partners with researchers to integrate climate models into future field treatments.

An insect enigma: The prescribed fire world is far from predictable. A couple years ago, McDuffey explained, he and his team conducted a burn and tried to restore the surrounding ecosystem — thinning out dead trees and lifting healthy ones.

“It was 390 acres and looked absolutely fantastic,” he said. But “come August, 90 percent of it was dead.”

Puzzled by the situation, he brought in a forest entomologist, who identified a beetle outbreak. But McDuffey noticed that even trees spared from the infestation had died.

Multiple consultations with fire ecologists at a USFS Forestry Sciences Laboratory branch repeatedly brought him to “a different direction to run in,” but no clear solution.

What worked in 1850 just won’t work today: McDuffey said he started thinking about the word “restore,” and how it implies that they should be bringing the ecosystem back to a time when a healthy forest was there.

“The forest looked really good in 1850,” he said, noting that snowfall was also much deeper at that time. “I’m not trying to replicate that now.”


Levels of stress in forests will only continue to grow, as new heat records rattle the region and soil moisture content remains low, McDuffey explained.

While McDuffey said that multiple repeated spring burns might build back some resilience amid a changing climate, he warned  that what looks like a healthy spring forest could succumb to an August blaze.

“What was once there will not be there,” McDuffey said. “A lot of those ponderosa pine stands will turn to grasslands and brush.”

Although higher elevations may be able to support some pines, tree adaptation rates might not keep pace with the rapidly changing ecosystem, according to McDuffey.

Firefighter-researcher partnerships: McDuffey thinks that the path forward will involve “embedding researchers and firefighters together” to plan those repeated spring burns using advanced technologies like tree stress sensors, which could “give those trees a fighting chance to stay there.” 

“You don’t want to sit back in 20 to 40 years and say, well, we just have a 40-percent loss of the ecosystem in the American West,” he said. 

Last words: “You’re fighting the fire today — the one that’s right in front of you,” McDuffey added. “But you’ve got to fight the fire that’s going to be there in 20 years too.”



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

Follow-up Friday 

Rep. Z Lofgren (D-Calif.) 

Turning back to issues we’ve explored throughout the week.

Western Democrats propose wildfire risk reduction bill

  • A Western contingent of the Science, Space and Technology Committee introduced the National Wildland Fire Risk Reduction Program on Friday, with the aim of improving resilience and response to wildfires, according to a news release from Rep. Zoe Lofgren’s (D-Calif.) office.
  • This latest bill follows a wealth of fire-related coverage this week, including a House subcommittee hearing that in part focused on Lofgren’s Wildland Firefighter Fair Pay Act.
  • The Wildland Fire Risk Reduction Program, co-sponsored by Lofgren, Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.), Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), would identify and invest in research and development, set up warning and forecast systems and standardize data collection, the news release said.
  • “Our country’s ability to accurately anticipate, detect, monitor, and contain fires is largely dependent on the scientific information available and how accessible that information is,” Lofgren said in a statement.

Coinciding climate disasters can imply each other’s effects on supply chains

  • Climate disasters cause economic losses that “ripple” across global supply chains  — leading to combined disasters worse than the sum of their parts, according to a study from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. 
  • This is a special case of a phenomenon that America’s emergency response managers are facing: compound disasters, as we wrote on Thursday.
  • “When extremes overlap, economic losses in the entire global supply network are 20 percent higher,” co-author Kilian Kuhla said in a statement.
  • These shocks add to each other “like a tidal wave,” even when they’ve originated on opposite corners of the world — as supply shortages increase prices, which proliferate and cause disruptions across the entire chain, lead author Anders Levermann said in a statement.

U.K. first country to adopt mandatory climate risk disclosures


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

Tags Ed Perlmutter Jerry McNerney Joe Biden Pope Francis Suzanne Bonamici Vladimir Putin Zoe Lofgren

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