Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Altria — Cotton farm accused of firing Black workers

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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

A cotton farm in the Mississippi Delta allegedly hired white South Africans to be trained by their experienced Black workers — and then paid them more, while firing the locals, according to a federal lawsuit covered in The New York Times.  

This may have violated civil rights law due to the exclusive hiring of white South Africans, as well as “a breach of contract that has resulted in massive underpayment and lost job opportunities,” the lawsuit alleges. The growers gradually brought in more South Africans each year, while Black farmers — like one plaintiff, Richard Strong — were told their services were no longer necessary, according to the Times. 

“I gave them half my life and ended up with nothing,” Strong told the Times. “I know everything on that place. I even know the dirt.”

Today we’ll look at the latest draft of the forthcoming COP26 agreement, which seems to stop far short of the goals initially set for the meeting. Then we’ll consider whether Democrats’ despondence over their recent gubernatorial loss in Virginia may be missing a counter-narrative: a nationwide surge in local administrations supportive of clean energy.

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.

Latest COP26 draft eases up on fossil fuels 

The latest draft of an international climate agreement currently under negotiation has watered down its stance on coal and fossil fuel phaseouts.

While a previous rendition had called upon countries to “accelerate the phasing-out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels,” the new draft hedges, urging the discontinuation of “unabated” coal and “inefficient” subsidies for fossil fuels. Nonetheless, world leaders were still negotiating the final text, as the United Nations Climate Conference (COP26) drew to a close on Friday. 

Why does that matter? The subtle change in language allows fossil fuel subsidies to remain in place and maintains a space for coal power, with carbon capture technologies — which are still expensive and still under development, and could contribute to prolonged use of polluting resources. 

The signatories would essentially be deferring more action on emissions reductions to COP27, scheduled to occur in Egypt in 2022, CNN reported. 

Keeping fossil fuels in the text — for now: As CNN pointed out, however, the text does include “unprecedented language around fossil fuels,” which remained in the draft despite “a fierce campaign” from oil, gas and coal producers to eliminate it.

But there’s also a chance that restrictions on fossil fuels might not make the final text at all, or might undergo further dilution, the CNN piece warned. Meanwhile, the draft “requests” that countries submit stronger emissions reductions plans by the end of the year, but provides wiggle room by accounting for “different national circumstances.” 

Compromises like the fossil fuel language incorporated in the deal are “always a bit of a tradeoff,” Helen Mountford, of the World Resources Institute, said in a briefing. 

“I would expect that some countries like Saudi Arabia would have been pushing for adding the inefficient in front of the fossil fuel subsidies,” she added.

The “definition of insanity”: Although John Kerry, the U.S. special envoy for climate change, defended the draft, he also described fossil fuel subsidies as the “definition of insanity” on Friday, The New York Times reported. 

But he said that the words “unabated” and “inefficient” around emissions and subsidies “must stay” in the final deal because commercial technology to capture carbon could be developed in the future, according to the Times.

“Deep regret”: The new draft also acknowledges with “deep regret” that developed countries failed to meet a 2009 goal of mobilizing $100 billion annually for developing countries by 2020, The Hill reported. 

But the document strengthens language surrounding the “loss and damage” that developing countries face from climate change and presses developed nations — who are responsible for the bulk of historical emissions and therefore warming — to allocate funds to address this.



Altria is working to create a more sustainable future — aligned with the expectations of society and our stakeholders. Learn about the goals we’ve set and the progress we’re making at Altria.com.



Unanswered questions: As world leaders deliberate over the final deal, many predicaments remained unsolved.

In India, a portion of power demand will need to be met by coal — forcing the country to either compromise on the development necessary to lift millions from poverty or burn coal, India’s top environmental official told The Associated Press. South Africa, meanwhile, likewise can’t afford to quit coal, according to The Wall Street Journal.

And in the E.U., officials plan to subsidize the burning of wood pellets as members transition away from fossil fuels — but doing so releases carbon emissions greater than the burning of coal per kilowatt hour, Mongabay reported. 

And for now, we wait. A final deal requires unanimous consent from the nearly 200 countries that signed the 2015 Paris Agreement, and ministers are also finishing rules that could help put that accord — which aimed to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) — into practice, according to Reuters. 

Last words: “If those rules are weak or introduce loopholes, it can undermine the acceleration and ambition and solidarity that we see in the text,” Yamide Dagnet of the World Resources Institute told Reuters.


Clean energy wins in 2021 elections

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While Democrats clashed over the causes of an unexpected defeat in Virginia’s gubernatorial race last week and a closer-than-expected race in New Jersey, an array of local elections in cities delivered a more complex picture nationwide. 

Many cities — including some in Texas and the Midwest — voted in favor of progressive policing and clean energy.

That means that even in Virginia, which just saw the victory of governor-elect Glenn Youngkin (R) — who was vocal in his opposition to state-mandated decarbonization of the electric grid — the momentum toward clean energy will be hard to arrest, InsideClimate News reported.

First steps: Election upsets often lead to intra-party battles over competing narratives of what went wrong. 

Last week’s gubernatorial elections have led centrist Democrats to charge that the progressive left holds too much power in the party — sparking an internal battle over the collage of cultural fights under the umbrella of “wokeness.”

Centrist Democrats like James Carville, a political consultant close to the Clintons, blamed slogans like “defund the police” for the Virginia defeat. But progressive operative Corbin Trent, a former communications director for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortes (D-N.Y.), told The Hill that “Democrats have worked really hard to be a blank page that people can write their expectations on,” which allowed Republicans to define the narrative.


But in municipal elections across the country, a more complex story unfolds. 

Take police reform: Minneapolis voters rejected a measure to cut funding to the city police, CNN reported. But Philadelphia voters, on the other hand, overwhelmingly re-elected progressive standard bearer Larry Krasner as the city’s top prosecutor, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Meanwhile, 68-percent of Austin voters rejected a Republican-sponsored initiative that would have forced the city to hire hundreds of new officers, The Texas Tribune reported.

Support for clean energy in mayoral races: Cities across the country also elected mayors whose campaigns had focused on a rapid build-up of clean energy, ICN reported.

Boston, for example, elected insurgent Democrat Michelle Wu on a platform of free public transit and support for a municipal “Green New Deal”, the Boston Globe reported.

Cleveland elected Justin Bibb in a nonpartisan election on a campaign to shift the city’s public electric utility from coal to clean energy, according to ICN.

A vote of confidence for a “frontier” proposal: One particular standout in last week’s elections was a very local one: the city council race for the Third War in Des Moines, Iowa, ICN reported. 

Its representative, Josh Mandelbaum, had come under fire from the regional power utility, MidAmerican Energy, for a proposal he helped pass to bring Des Moines 24-hour, zero-carbon energy by 2035 — a fossil fuel free future that ICN described as “a new frontier” for local governments.

MidAmerican warned that the plan would lead to higher prices and lower reliability — but Mandelbaum told ICN that he “ran very hard on those issues, [and] made sure the voters knew about it.” He won last week as well.

Back to Virginia: Though he ran primarily on school curriculum issues, Youngkin, the governor-elect, said in a debate that Virginia’s 2020 mandate to bring the state electric grid to zero-carbon emissions by 2050 “puts our entire energy grid at risk,” ICN reported elsewhere. 

This will not be easily undone, as Republicans don’t have the votes in the Senate to overturn the law — which principal state utilities like Dominion Energy supported — and will not have an opportunity to gain them until 2023, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.  

Meanwhile, local initiatives are underway to build what could be the largest offshore wind farm in the United States, according to renewable energy company Siemens Gamesa.

Last words: The best hope for Democrats in 2022, Pete Maysmith of the League of Conservation Voters told ICN, is to “pass the spending bill as soon as possible, and then talk about its benefits nonstop.”



Altria is working to create a more sustainable future — aligned with the expectations of society and our stakeholders. Learn about the goals we’ve set and the progress we’re making at Altria.com.

Follow-up Friday

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman J Manchin (D-W.Va.) is seen during a  nomination hearing on Tuesday, October 19, 2021.

Another look at issues we’ve explored throughout the week.

Sen. Manchin opposes tying electric vehicle tax credit to unions

  • Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has come out against a key part of the Biden climate and social policy plan: a $4,500 federal tax credit for union-made electric vehicles, The Washington Post reported.
  • At an event celebrating the opening of a new plant by non-union Toyota — which has opposed the credit — Manchin called the tax-credit “not American” and added “we shouldn’t use everyone’s tax dollars to pick winners and losers,” the Post reported.
  • “Picking winners and losers” is a common Republican talking point leveled at the clean-energy provisions of the Biden climate plan.

World leaders convene on climate, but trash amasses outside

  • While diplomats gathered in Glasgow to create an action plan for reducing greenhouse gas pollution, trash was piling up outside, The New York Times reported.
  • A former garbage collector told the Times that the only thing flourishing in today’s Glasgow is “a mountain of waste,” visible a short distance from the summit’s doorstep.
  • Dumpsters are overflowing and the city’s rat population has surged — leading to the hospitalization of four garbage workers who suffered recent attacks, the Times reported.
  • The city’s 1,000 waste workers just completed an eight-day strike due to poor working conditions, but litter is a longstanding issue, with collection occurring only once every three weeks in some areas — down from once every two weeks just a year ago, according to the Times. 

Biden, Xi to hold virtual summit on Monday

  • President Biden will hold a virtual summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday, as the two countries continue to confront tensions over trade, cyberthreats, climate action, Taiwan and human rights, The New York Times reported.
  • The summit comes, however, just a few days after the climate envoys from both nations issued a surprise agreement to collaborate on regulating emissions, electrifying industry, deploying technologies to capture carbon emissions and curbing the release of methane, which we covered on Thursday.
  • “The two leaders will discuss ways to responsibly manage the competition between the United States and the [People’s Republic of China], as well as ways to work together where our interests align,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement, as reported by the Times.


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


Tags Glenn Youngkin Jen Psaki Joe Biden Joe Manchin John Kerry

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