Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Beijing pollution halved since last Olympics

AP Photo/David J. Phillip

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 

The 2022 Winter Olympics begin Friday, but athletes can expect far more breathable conditions than they experienced during Beijing’s last turn as host city in 2008.  

Pollution across China has plummeted by about 40 percent, and by about 50 percent in Beijing specifically, due in large part to the country’s “war against pollution” that was launched in 2013, an analysis from the University of Chicago’s Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) has found.  

As a result of these reductions, the average Chinese citizen can expect to live two years longer, while Beijing residents can expect to live about four years longer, assuming these improvements are maintained, according to the AQLI. 

“The air people in Beijing breathe today is dramatically cleaner than it was during the last Olympics, allowing residents to live longer, healthier lives,” Michael Greenstone, a co-creator of the AQLI, said in a statement.   

Today we’ll look at a contentious hearing over the role of the Federal Reserve in regulating climate risk. Then we’ll look at how states this year may address toxic compounds found in common household items.

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. 

Clashes over climate at confirmation hearings

Sarah Bloom Raskin, nominee to be vice chairman for supervision and a member of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, is sworn in during the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee confirmation hearing on Thursday, February 3, 2022Republicans grilled Federal Reserve nominee Sarah Bloom Raskin at her confirmation hearing on Thursday morning, with senators like Pat Toomey (Pa.) challenging her belief that the Fed must work to reduce risk from climate change in the U.S. financial system. 

As Democrats argued that assessing and reducing climate risk is well within the Federal Reserve’s existing mandate, Republicans offered a Catch-22: that although Congress has struggled for decades to act on climate change, it remains exclusively Congress’ job.  

First words: “The unelected governors of America’s central bank shouldn’t be responsible for dealing with difficult issues like global warming, social justice and education policy,” Toomey said.  

“This isn’t about the importance of those issues. It’s about keeping the Fed apolitical and independent and ensuring that elected, accountable representatives make difficult decisions.”  

Behind the lines: If Raskin is unable to win over any Republicans, she will need unanimous support of all 50 Senate Democrats and a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Harris to be confirmed at a floor vote later this month.   

What are Democrats saying? While moderate Democrats have sunk some of Biden’s previous financial regulatory picks, Raskin appeared to draw little concern from potential holdouts. 

“I think it’s critically important that the Fed gets all the information they can when they’re dealing with risk to our financial system,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). “And I think that it is rather obvious that climate change has to be part of the information that you gather.” 

What’s the Fed’s current position? Under Fed Chair Jerome Powell, a Republican renominated by Biden, the central bank has joined and established several research committees but has ruled out penalizing banks for serving the fossil industry.   

In his January confirmation hearing, Powell said that “our role on climate change … is to ensure that banking institutions we regulate understand their risks and can manage them, and it’s also to look after financial stability.” 

A double standard? Raskin’s Democratic supporters insisted her views were in line with Powell’s and should be no issue for Republican senators who have rallied behind another term for the Fed chief.  

“Why are the Republicans so stirred up by a mainstream position? Why is it okay when Jerome Powell says the climate issues are part of the Fed’s mandate, but it’s not okay when Professor Bloom Raskin and other nominees say the same thing?” asked Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who opposed Powell’s renomination. 

“Asking the Fed to ignore climate risks is to ask the Fed to defy its congressional mandate. An institution responsible for the security of our financial system, and the growth of our economy cannot blind itself to climate issues,” she continued. 

PIVOTING THE FED TOWARD THE FUTURE

In a pre-hearing interview on CNBC Tuesday evening, Toomey suggested that climate risk was overblown because no extreme weather has yet caused a crash.  

“When [was] the last time a significant financial institution in America failed as a result of a severe weather event? “Nobody [knows] because it doesn’t happen. It hasn’t happened,” Toomey said.  

Never or ‘not yet?’ But if Raskin is confirmed, a key part of her job will be to move the agency toward a more proactive role, former Fed regulator Sarah Dougherty of the Natural Resources Defense Council told Equilibrium.  

This has implications beyond climate: “Using historical data is what made [the economic collapse of] 2008 happen. All models assumed that housing prices wouldn’t go down for more than a quarter, because historically they didn’t,” Dougherty said.  

The subsequent crisis, she said, “showed that history is not a perfect predictor of the future. And it’s the same with climate.” 

Last words: A bank may be able to “withstand one Category Four hurricane — but what about three? What if it happens with a lot of wildfires, as we’re already stretched thin on emergency services? One plus one in these cases doesn’t always equal two,” Dougherty added. 

The main difference between a climate crisis and the 2008 crisis is that this time “we see it coming,” Dougherty added.  

Please click here to read the full story with our colleague Sylvan Lane. 

‘Forever chemicals’ to dominate 2022 policies

The cancer-linked compounds known as “forever chemicals” will top the charts as the No. 1 driver of state-level toxic chemical policies in 2022, an environmental health umbrella group announced on Thursday.     

First words: “State legislatures recognize the severity of the toxic PFAS crisis we’re facing and they’re taking action,” Sarah Doll, national director of the Safer States network, said in a statement.   

“2022 will be another groundbreaking year when it comes to addressing toxic ‘forever chemicals’ in state policies.”     

Why are they called forever chemicals again? Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are key components in a wide range of household goods, as well as a type of foam used to fight jet-fuel fires.    

But they are also known for their propensity to linger both in the human body and in the environment. And some of these chemicals — which include thousands of different compounds — are linked to kidney cancer, thyroid disease and other illnesses.    

Lacking federal guidelines, states are taking action: To date, the Environmental Protection Agency has not yet set any drinking water standards for the thousands of types of PFAS. The agency has established non-binding health advisories for two types — PFOS and PFOA — and has announced plans to regulate these two compounds in drinking water by 2023.    

That has left it up to individual states to set standards for these chemicals. There are currently 32 states slated to consider more than 210 PFAS-related policies in 2022, according to Safer States, a national network of state-level environmental health organizations.   

“States continue to lead the way in addressing these serious problems with urgency and innovative solutions,” Doll said.  

Plans for 2022: At least 17 states are considering implementing policies to address PFAS cleanup, management and accountability including medical monitoring for exposure victims, while at least 10 states are evaluating legislation that would set limits for PFAS in drinking water, according to Safer States.    

In addition, at least 10 of these states are weighing restrictions on all PFAS except where unavoidable, and/or requiring disclosure of their inclusion in products, the group reported. And six states are also considering policies that would restrict the use of such chemicals in cosmetics or children’s products.  

TOXINS IN THE HOME

Although PFAS have been present in the nation’s waterways, soil and products for decades, they are gaining attention now because of the wide assortment products at home that might contain the pervasive — and often evasive — chemicals.     

How dangerous are PFAS in your home? While the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) says that exposure to PFAS from consumer products is low in comparison to exposure from contaminated drinking water, the agency does provide a list of some products that may contain PFAS.   

The Environmental Working Group, Toxic-Free Future and other environmental health organizations offer their own lists, as does 3M, which manufactures a number of medical and industrial materials that contain PFAS.      

Here’s a list of some household products that often contain PFAS 

  • Grease-resistant paper, wrappers and containers for fast food and bakery goods, microwave popcorn bags, pizza boxes, and candy wrappers   
  • Contaminated fish  
  • Nonstick cookware   
  • Stain resistant coatings used on carpets, upholstery and other fabrics   
  • Water- and stain-repellent apparel and waterproof outdoor gear   
  • Cleaning products   
  • Personal care products (shampoo, dental floss) and cosmetics (nail polish, eye makeup)   
  • Paints, varnishes, and sealants   
  • Ski wax, automotive applications   
  • Medical devices like vascular grafts, stent grafts, surgical meshes, catheter tubes and heart patches   

Also on the radar — anti-fogging sprays and breastmilk: A recent study from Duke University also revealed that anti-fogging sprays marketed to bespectacled mask-wearers also contain certain types of PFAS, as previously reported by The Hill.     

Meanwhile, ATSDR warns that infants can be exposed to PFAS by consuming contaminated breastmilk, but that nursing mothers should continue to breastfeed regardless.   

Last words: “Based on current science, the benefits of breastfeeding appear to outweigh the risks for infants exposed to PFAS in breast milk,” a statement from ATSDR says.   

 

Thermal Thursday 

Gas, gas and greenhouses. 

European Commission splits baby on whether gas, nuclear are green 

‘Farts’ from ghost forests come from living soil, not dead trees 

  • The methane that rises from North Carolina “ghost forests” killed by rising sea is actually released by microbes in the soils beneath the dead trees — whose bodies channel it up into the atmosphere like woody straws, according to North Carolina State University. 

‘Smart’ greenhouses could reduce electricity costs for farmers   

  • Building “smart” greenhouses with Internet-connected lighting systems could reduce greenhouse electrical costs by as much as 33 percent, a new study published in Plants has found. Optimizing lighting could be a critical shift, as the electricity used for lights makes up 10 to 30 percent of greenhouse operational costs, according to Marc Van Iersel, study co-author and a professor at the University of Georgia. 

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

Tags Elizabeth Warren Jerome Powell Jon Tester Pat Toomey

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