Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Delta — Louisiana governor visits massive wood-burning plant

David J. Phillip / Associated Press

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

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) took a side trip from COP26 to visit one of Britain’s most polluting power plants, according to Gizmodo.

Drax Power Station, located in North Yorkshire, England, has billed itself as “carbon neutral” since it changed its fuel from coal to wood pellets, which are made from ground-up trees largely harvested in states like Louisiana. In theory, every tree cut down would be replaced by a new one that grows in its place, creating a closed carbon loop.

But it takes around 90 years for the books to balance, according to Biomass Magazine — if they balance at all, scientists say. And in the meantime, trees that were previously sequestering carbon are being burned in a process that emits more carbon dioxide than coal, according to PhysicsWorld.

Today we’re looking at two stories about the gaps between stated goals and facts on the ground — and the groups trying to close them. First, we look at the tap water of American cities, which a recent study found is full of dangerous — and unregulated — pollutants. Then we consider a new international accounting proposal aimed at making sure green investing is actually green.

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.


Millions consuming ‘invisible toxic cocktail’

Millions of Americans are unknowingly ingesting water that includes “an invisible toxic cocktail” of cancer-linked chemicals, a new survey of the nation’s tap water has found.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG)’s 2021 Tap Water Database, available to the public as of  Wednesday, revealed contamination from toxins like arsenic, lead and “forever chemicals” — perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — in the drinking water of tens of millions of households across all 50 states, as well as Washington, D.C. 

First words: “The Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Groundwater and Drinking Water has demonstrated for decades that it is utterly incapable of standing up to pressure from water utilities and polluters to protect human health from the dozens of toxic contaminants in America’s drinking water,” EWG President Ken Cook said in a press statement. 

What’s in the database? EWG researchers spent two years analyzing U.S. water contaminants from almost 50,000 drinking water supply systems, a news release from the group said. The researchers attributed their findings to the ugly combination of “antiquated infrastructure and rampant pollution of source water,” together with obsolete EPA regulations that rely “on archaic science.”

They also found 56 contaminants not previously identified in American drinking water. These generally fell into two categories: new PFAS compounds, and chemicals found through the EPA’s fourth Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring analysis — which surveys suspected drinking water for contaminants that do not yet have health-based standards.

That means that many new, potentially unsafe chemicals remain legal, as regulators haven’t caught up with chemistry, according to the EWG. 

So how do you check your city’s water? Simply log into the database and enter your zip code, and then scroll down to select the utility that serves their community.

The database then shows which contaminants have been detected, while cautioning that water deemed “legal does not necessarily equal safe.”

How did big cities fare? Washington, D.C., has 13 contaminants that exceed EWG’s health guidelines, although the district does comply with legally mandated federal standards.

But D.C.’s drinking water has 58 times the amount of arsenic that the EWG deems safe, as well as 116 times the amount of chloroform and comparatively high levels of many other cancer-linked contaminants.

Further north, New York City has 10 contaminants that exceed EWG’s health guidelines, while also complying with legally mandated federal standards — including 80 times the amount of chloroform that EWG deems safe and 2.1 times the amount of hexavalent chromium, the chemical made famous by activist Erin Brockovich’s fight in Hinkley, Calif.



Because we believe you shouldn’t have to choose between seeing the world and saving the world. Learn more. 



How can these be legal, but not safe? Although the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act gave the EPA the authority to oversee U.S. tap water quality, and the agency has set maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for more than 90 contaminants, the water provided by most municipal systems is not actually safe, according to the EWG.

The EPA’s Office of Groundwater and Drinking Water has added no new contaminants to its regulated list since 2000, the EWG statement said. Meanwhile, many MCLs do not reflect current science; standards for nitrates, for example, are based on a U.S. Public Health Service recommendation from 1962, the EWG found.

Because contaminants like PFAS and hexavalent chromium still have no legal limits, water utilities still have no incentive to tackle the pollution that plagues local communities, according to the EWG.

What can be done? The EWG called for substantial federal investments to help solve U.S. tap water problems, such as removing toxic lead services lines and cleaning up PFAS contamination — both of which are included in Congress’s infrastructure spending bills that are still under debate. 

The EPA did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

Last words: “Achieving true water equity means getting everyone — every single person — in this country access to affordable, safe tap water they can trust will not poison them and their loved ones,” Cook said. 

To read the full story, please click here. 


New accounting standards for sustainability

A major international accounting watchdog rolled out a new international regulatory body on Wednesday at COP26 that takes aim at the problem of “greenwashing” — glossy but false claims of sustainability — in investing.

The proposed plan, the International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB), aims to transform a checkerboard of disjointed climate disclosure standards into one unified metric. That would give investors and companies a shared rubric they could use to compare a company’s climate impact and risk quickly and reliably.

Such a standard is a necessary prerequisite for any further financial measures aimed at growing global sustainability.

Why? “If you don’t have basic information on a globally comparable basis, then you increase the risks of greenwashing enormously,” said Ashley Alder, head of the International Organization of Securities Commissions, at a COP26 panel, according to Reuters.

One plan of many: In laying out just such a global system, the ISSB is just one big plan under discussion at COP26 aimed at helping protect the financial system against the impacts of climate risk — as well as to provide much of the $100 trillion that U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has indicated it will cost to transition the world off fossil fuels, according to The Associated Press.

“In many cases, it’s simply cost effective to go green,” Yellen said at a COP26 panel, according to the AP.

What constitutes “green”? That — along with the onslaught of risk from climate change itself — is a key anxiety facing investors, governments and regulators.

Currently, $130 trillion in financial capital is currently managed by companies committed to the goal of hitting net-zero by 2050— 26 times as much as was committed at the start of 2020, according to the Glasgow Alliance for Net Zero. 

But these commitments are non-binding, voluntary and come with wide variation in how rigorous the companies’ plans are. The ISSB standard seeks to lay a foundation to fix that.

Think of shared accounting standards as the foundation: They’re a necessary prerequisite to build everything else the global financial system wants to build coming out of COP26.



Other proposals include: Direct carbon taxes and carbon border taxes; arguments over the proper role of auditors; and the bevy of “science-based” pledges around reaching net zero, as The Wall Street Journal reported.

China, for example, is pushing for a global carbon trading market to come out of COP26, according to Reuters — which will require a rigorous way of accounting for carbon.

A “gold standard” task force: Britain is aiming to become the first country to require companies to lay out details by 2023 for how they plan to weather a transition to a low-carbon economy — including plans to deal with climate risk and intermediate steps between now and 2050, Reuters reported. 

For these plans to be meaningful also requires a shared standard — a “gold standard” that will be set up by a new Transition Plan Taskforce made up of industry and academic leaders, according to the U.K. government.

Avoiding a rebellion: A group of large investors sent a letter to the leading Big Four audit firms — Deloitte, Ernst & Young, KPMG and PwC — threatening to use their power to lobby the companies they invest in at future annual meetings to drop the Big Four as auditors if they don’t begin to factor in climate risk, according to Reuters.

Last words: In its response, Deloitte managing partner Paul Stephenson seemed to concede the point, saying that “climate-related risks should be accounted for and disclosed appropriately in annual reports and financial statements,” according to Reuters.



Because we believe you shouldn’t have to choose between seeing the world and saving the world. Learn more. 


World Wednesdays

Goings-on around the globe.

Developing countries call for large emitters to step up

  • Members of the U.N.’s Least Developed Countries (LDCs) — a 46-member cohort — called upon the world’s largest emitters to scale up emissions reductions commitments at a COP26 forum Wednesday morning, as reported by The Hill.
  • “We have contributed the least to this climate change problem,” said LDC Chair Sonam Wangdi, secretary of Bhutan’s National Environment Commission. “Yet we suffer disproportionately every day.”
  • Without drastic action, citizens will continue to suffer and face property destruction, he added, calling for global emissions to be cut in half by 2030.
  • Wangdi also addressed an unmet target set by developed countries, which aimed to mobilize $100 billion annually by 2020 for developing countries — a goal that Western leaders, including U.S. special envoy for climate John Kerry, said could occur soon
  • Wangdi said there needs to be an assessment tool to quantify funds, but he expressed optimism that decisions made at COP26 would lead to some “clear milestones.”
  • “We cannot wait any longer,” Wangdi said, urging the biggest emitters “to stop skirting responsibility.”

Sino-American tensions continue to threaten climate talks

  • President Biden criticized China and Russia on Tuesday for failing to participate in COP26 in person, arguing that this would weaken their global influence, The Hill reported.
  • “I think it’s been a big mistake, quite frankly, for China,” Biden said. “The rest of the world is going to look to China and say, what value added are they providing?”
  • Progress at COP26 may still be subject to Sino-American tensions — particularly over the U.S. sanctions on solar suppliers with links to the Xinjiang region, where Western countries have accused China of human rights abuses, Reuters reported.
  • “You can’t ask China to cut coal production on the one hand, while at the same time imposing sanctions on Chinese photovoltaic enterprises,” said Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin, according to Reuters.

Disappearing clouds mean a dangerous UV ‘storm’ above Bolivian Andes

  • Bolivia’s capital city is “cooking” beneath a dangerous storm of ultraviolet rays, local risk management official Juan Pablo Palma told Reuters.
  • The high-altitude capital has been experiencing UV levels of 21 — on a scale that generally stops at 20, and where 11 is “extreme,” Reuters reported.
  • Some Bolivian scientists say the problem is climate change: while the sun hasn’t gotten stronger, a warming climate has realigned rainfall patterns that previously provided a screen of clouds that protected the city.
  • “Now that there are no clouds, we have an entry of a large amount of ultraviolet radiation that affects everyone,” La Paz climate scientist Luis Blacutt told Reuters.

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

Tags COP26 Janet Yellen Joe Biden John Bel Edwards John Kerry

The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video