What Will President Biden’s Environmental Policies Look Like?

Now that the electoral college voted for Joe Biden as the next president, it’s time to consider his environmental policies. They will definitely not look anything like Donald Trump’s policies that opened the nation’s air, water, and soil up to fossil fuel companies to exploit. 

Biden’s first days in office will certainly include undoing the damage of Trump’s policies. He has pledged to reinstate the U.S. commitment to the Paris climate accord. Biden will not need Senate approval since the U.S. involvement with the accord was set up by an executive action

A 100 percent clean energy economy and net zero-emissions by 2050

Achieving a 100 percent clean energy economy and net-zero emissions by 2050 is one of the key parts of Biden’s environmental policies and climate change plan. Using the federal government procurement system, which spends $500 billion annually, as a driver to meet the 100 percent clean energy goal is one of those measures. Making U.S. government buildings, facilities, and installations more efficient and environmentally-friendly is another measure. 

Biden’s plan recognizes that transportation is a key sector as it is the fastest-growing source of climate pollution. He pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in several ways. One of those ways is by using the Clean Air Act. Another way is developing new fuel economy standards to ensure 100 percent of new sales for light and medium-duty vehicles will be electric.

Protecting nature

Biden’s environmental policies include a climate change plan committed to protecting nature. The exact opposite of President Trump’s administration. Instead of offering up public lands to fossil fuel and mining companies, Biden pledges to protect biodiversity, slow extinction rates, and conserve 30 percent of the nation’s lands and waters by 2030. Biden’s plan also includes protecting areas impacted by President Trump’s executive actions. The president-elect vows to permanently protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other areas that face environmental destructions due to Trump’s policies.

He pledges to ban new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters and create programs to enhance reforestation and develop renewables on federal lands and waters. He has a goal to double offshore wind by 2030. 

Investing in clean energy, energy efficiency, and electric vehicles

Biden’s environmental policies also include pledges to make a federal investment of $1.7 trillion in clean energy over the next 10 years. He also pledges to leverage private sector and state and local investments to total more than $5 trillion in investments. This summer, Biden mentioned the $90 billion investment the Obama administration made in clean energy. “We’ll do it again, but this time bigger and faster and smarter,” Biden said. “We’re not just going to tinker around the edges. We’re going to make historic investments that will seize the opportunity and meet this moment in history.”  

The Biden plan will incentivize clean technology deployment in several ways. One of those is by improving the energy efficiency of the nation’s buildings. He pledges to set a goal of reducing the carbon footprint of the U.S. building stock by 50 percent by 2035. Part of that includes directing the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to make housing for low-income communities more efficient and directing the U.S. Department of Energy to redouble efforts to accelerate new energy efficiency standards for household appliances.

Biden pledges to accelerate the deployment of electric vehicles. One of the barriers to accelerating the deployment of EVs is the lack of charging stations. Biden’s plan includes working with governors and mayors to support deploying more than 500,000 new public charging outlets by 2030. He will also restore the full EV tax credit.

The next great railroad revolution

Biden’s plan includes starting the second great railroad revolution. The first part of his plan is bringing higher speed rail to the Northeast Corridor.

He pledges to shrink the travel time from Washington, D.C. to New York by half. He also pledges to make progress on California’s high-speed rail project, start constructing end-to-end high-speed rail across the Midwest and West, and begin construction of a high-speed rail system that will connect the coasts. 

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New Rules In California Protect Endangered Whales and Sea Turtles

In a sea of bad news, we welcome any good news. Out of the golden state, comes that bit of good news we all need. The state of California recently took action to protect sea life. 

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (Department) released a new rule to reduce the risk of marine life, including endangered whales and sea turtles, becoming entangled in commercial Dungeness crab gear. The new rules went into effect on November 1, 2020, and apply to humpback whales, blue whales, and Pacific leatherback sea turtles.  

lawsuit and severe increases in whale entanglements prompted the state to enact the new rule. The Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit in 2017 after whale entanglements off the California coast broke records for three years in a row. In 2016, of the 29 cases where the gear could be identified that entangled, 22 were commercial Dungeness crab gear from California. Humpback whales were identified in 17 of the cases and one leatherback sea turtle was found dead and entangled in rock crab gear. The lawsuit led to an agreement in 2019 with the state to end the last two crab seasons before the spring whale migration. 

“It’s good to see California finally taking whale entanglements seriously,” said Kristen Monsell, the Center’s oceans legal director, in a statement. “This new system should reduce the risk crab gear poses to whales and sea turtles. But we’re disappointed that officials didn’t do more to encourage conversion to ropeless gear, which is the only way to truly eliminate the threat of entanglement for these ocean animals.”

The danger of Dungeness crab traps

Fish harvesters catch Dungeness crab with circular steel traps on the seafloor. Bait in the traps attracts the crab and the traps capture them. The thick ropes connected to the commercial Dungeness crab traps entangle whales and sea turtles, injuring and killing them. The ropes cut into the flesh of the whales and turtles, causing them to drown. When whales become entangled in crab gear, they often end up trailing fishing gear behind them, which can sever appendages. Around 75 percent of whale entanglements are fatal. Entangled sea turtles can drown from being anchored to the gear. 

Dungeness crab traps are the most common gear identified in entanglements off the West Coast. The state’s new Risk Assessment and Mitigation Program evaluates the necessity of mitigation measures like shortening the season or closing an area to crab gear to reduce entanglements.

Protecting endangered marine animals

California’s new rules protect endangered marine animals off of the state’s shores. In 1970, the U.S. federal government listed humpback whales as endangered under the Endangered Species Conservation Act, and under the Endangered Species Act in 1973. Known for their long flippers, humpback whales are still protected as endangered in four out of the 14 distinct population segments, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The longest animal on earth, the blue whale has a heart the size of a Volkswagen Beetle and weighs up to 200 tons. The loudest animal on earth, the blue whale is louder even than a jet engine. First listed as endangered in 1970, the blue whale is protected by the ESA throughout its range. 

Named for their shells which have a texture more like leather than hard like other turtles, leatherback sea turtles are the largest sea turtle species. Pacific leatherbacks migrate from the Coral Triangle to the California coast. Their global population decreased by 40 percent over the last three generations. All leatherback populations are protected under the ESA. 

The Rise Electric Heavy-Duty Vehicles

Part of fighting climate change is reducing emissions from the transportation sector. Transportation is one of the biggest contributors to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Transportation accounted for the biggest portion (28 percent) of all U.S. GHG emissions in 2018. In California, the most populous state, transportation is the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for about 40 percent of the state’s emissions. 

While heavy-duty vehicles (HDVs) make up about five percent of all vehicles on road, they generate over 25 percent of all emissions from the transportation sector. Addressing the emissions from HDVs is crucial to reducing the transportation sector’s emissions. A battery-electric bus is the lowest-carbon option in every part of the nation, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. The good news is that battery and fuel cell electric trucks and buses already operate in cities across the U.S. The fleets of electric buses continue to expand. One of those reasons is that some cities have committed to 100 percent zero-emission transit buses in their fleets. Two of those cities are New York and Los Angeles, which represent the nation’s two largest bus fleets.

The Future for Zero-Emission Commercial Transportation

Manufacturers recognize that the future of the commercial vehicle industry is zero-emissions, according to a new report. The report by the International Council on Clean Transportation, Propulsion Quebec, and the Environmental Defense Fund identifies at least 125 zero-emission truck models either in production, development, or demonstration. Commercial trucks and buses are the “next wave in the global transition to electric mobility,” the report states. 

The market for zero-emission HDVs is just beginning to grow. In 2019, only 600 units sold in the U.S. and Canada, up from 100 units in 2015. The combined sales in both countries only made up a tiny portion of the global market last year, representing less than 0.1 percent of the commercial truck and bus market. The transit bus sector represents the largest portion of zero-emissions HDVs but only represents three percent of sales in 2019. However, over the last five years, commercial activity in electric heavy-duty vehicles surged. Dozens of manufacturers in the industry significantly invested in electric HDVs. The report predicts that the transition to electric heavy-duty vehicles will accelerate over the next decade. 

The expected growth of the market for Electric Heavy-Duty Vehicles

Experts expect the number of available models to double in the U.S. and Canada by 2023. “We expect the market to continue to accelerate,” said Ben Sharpe, Senior Researcher at the International Council on Clean Transportation. “With ambitious policies such as California’s Advanced Clean Trucks regulation coming into effect over the next few years, as well as steadily decreasing costs for zero-emission technology, the race to zero is heating up fast.”

The electric truck market will reach $1.89 billion globally by 2027, at a 25.8 percent compound annual growth rate (CAGR), according to a report released in August by Allied Market Research. In 2019, the global electric truck industry had an estimated value of $422.5 million but is expected to hit $1.89 billion by 2027. The heavy-duty electric vehicle segment is expected to grow the fastest at a 31.8 percent CAGR. 

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How Climate Change Affects Water In California’s San Joaquin Valley

In California, water is a big issue in California’s San Joaquin Valley, an agricultural region that supplies the nation and the world with food. It is an arid region, receiving around 12.8 inches of rain a year in Fresno, its largest city. 

Much of the area’s agricultural irrigation comes from snowmelt in the Sierra Nevada Mountains which surround it. Climate change affects snowpack. When temperatures increase, there is less rain which leads to a reduced snowpack. “Snowpack in California is essential because it stores water that is used during the dry summer months to fill the state’s extensive system of reservoirs and deliver water to our homes and crops,” according to a guide by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). 

California’s complex water system and drought

Water in California is what the UCS describes as the state’s “connective tissue.” Over 1,300 federal, state, and local surface reservoirs dot the landscape throughout the state and capture rain, snowmelt, and runoff. There are thousands of miles of canals, natural waterways, and pipes that bring water to 40 million people in California. Cycles of drought and flooding stress the water system. Climate change will increase drought and floods.

Droughts and floods will become more intense in California over the next 20 to 50 years, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. Drought affects groundwater levels. In California, groundwater levels increase during the wet season in the winter and decrease during the rest of the year, particularly during the dry season in the summer. Droughts that last longer are part of climate change impacts in the state. With drought, water levels in groundwater aquifers in the Valley decrease. 

In California, about 60 percent of the water supply comes from surface water, and 40 percent comes from groundwater. In a time of drought, that reverses, and groundwater becomes the main source of water. During the 2012 to 2016 drought, 60 percent of water came from groundwater, and 40 percent came from surface water. This resulted in higher costs for agriculture. Pumping groundwater requires energy, and over-pumping causes water tables to fall. 

The San Joaquin Valley’s economy depends on agriculture. Times of drought deeply affect agriculture. One of the fastest-growing areas in the state, it is also one of the poorest and warmest regions. Lower-income communities have fewer resources to cope with drought. Many Valley communities already cope with disproportionate poverty and depend heavily on agricultural jobs. Job loss from wells going dry is a real threat to Valley communities. 

Water quality and flooding in the Valley

In such an arid area, it may sound odd to discuss flooding, but floods are a real threat to the Valley. Rainstorms during the winter months will likely become more extreme, with more rainfall in shorter periods that could cause floods. The UCS guide uses the analogy of a sponge. When you slowly pour water on a sponge, it absorbs the water until the sponge is saturated. If you pour a large amount of water on the sponge all at once, much of the water will not be absorbed by the sponge but will run off of it. Soil is the sponge, and soil can’t absorb large amounts of rain in a short period. 

Water quality is another concern as climate change worsens water quality from surface water. Higher temperatures combined with nitrate contamination, cause toxic algae to flourish in rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. Algae suck all of the oxygen in the water, killing fish and other aquatic species. 

The state’s inadequate response 

California falls short on making its water supply climate change resilient, as a UCS analysis of the state’s water system points out. No state-level operations models capable of accounting for projected climate shifts exist. Past assumptions form the basis of many of the water decisions made in the state. The rules for when the state’s surface reservoirs must store or release water to protect against flooding serve as a good example. The rules stem from assumptions about the timing and intensity of reservoir inflows from over 50 to 60 years ago. Those rules created problems during the 2012 to 2016 drought by requiring the winter release of water that should have been stored. 

The UCS analysis suggests several steps on the federal, state, and local levels, including updating planning processes for climate shifts. That includes developing and using models representing the effects of climate shifts on the state’s water management. “The state should utilize these tools to require and facilitate the integration of quantitative climate planning into all aspects of state water management,” the analysis stated. 

California needs an adequate response to the climate change impacts on its water system. Forty million people in an economy ranked as the nation’s largest need a water system resilient enough to handle the increased drought and floods climate change brings.

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WorldWeWant Campaign Calls For Climate Action

What kind of world do we want? Do we want one where we are more likely to see wildfires and tropical storms? That’s the question we all need to ask ourselves. The sane answer is that we want a world where greenhouse gas emissions stay below the 2 degree Celsius increase that climate scientists say is necessary to avoid the worst climate change impacts.

In mid-October, the Climate Action Network launched the #WorldWeWant Campaign on Climate Impacts. The campaign highlights the consequences of climate inaction, calls on governments to deliver radical climate commitments, and highlights the voices of affected communities. Part of the campaign includes short films from communities around the world. The campaign posts the films with the #WorldWeWant hashtag. There are over 20 stories sourced through the campaign’s national, regional, and international members in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, the United States, Uganda, Costa Rica, Morocco, Tunisia, Mozambique, Niger, Sudan, Tunisia, Russia, Tajikistan, the Philippines, and Cambodia.

The year of climate action 

2020 is the year when all countries are expected to submit their national climate action plans to reduce emissions to put the world on a 1.5 degrees Celsius pathway. Only 13 countries submitted updated national climate plans to date, which represents only 3.6 percent of global emissions. December 12 marks the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement

The campaign calls on governments to submit updated national climate plans by the end of this year. It also calls on global financing institutions and developed countries to shift their financial investments from fossil fuels and support developing countries in investing in plans and policies that protect people from climate change impacts. The campaign also calls on governments to listen to the science and better prepare for extreme weather events, and to create a just and sustainable recovery that puts health and safety first while investing in resilience building and nature, and to abandon a fossil fuel growth model. 

What you can do

With a new administration taking office in January, we must make our voices heard about climate change. There are several easy ways to do so. One of those is through getting involved with the World We Want campaign. There are three ways you can get involved. You can become an influencer and help spread the word through social media, join the Policy Strategy Group and be a part of the team, or engage with the UN. 

You can also send an email message to the World Bank through the Big Shift campaign. The campaign calls on the World Bank to end direct and indirect financing for all fossil fuels, rapidly scale up investment in energy access. The campaign also calls on the World Bank to help lead a just transition by aligning all its lending and operations with a 1.5 C pathway, work with its peers to announce a joint multilateral development banks framework on alignment with 1.5 C by the end of 2020, and work on developing a high ambition coalition at the Finance in Common summit for ending fossil fuel financing from all public finance institutions. 

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The Move to Keep Fossil Fuels In the Ground

The covid-19 pandemic failed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. According to the World Meteorological Organization, global carbon emissions continue to increase. Perhaps one of the reasons is that most of the world’s electricity still comes from fossil fuels. And fossil fuel exploration and extraction continues despite the pandemic.

Fossil fuels are the main cause of climate change. Coal, oil, and gas comprise nearly 80 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions since the industrial revolution. The world is on track to produce more than twice as many fossil fuels by 2030 than is consistent with limiting the rise in global temperature to below 1.5 degrees Celsius. The world’s fossil fuel reserves contain enough carbon to push the world beyond the 1.5C goal. 

Phasing-out existing stockpiles and the production of fossil fuels is in line with the 1.5C goal. The Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty calls for the phasing out of both stockpiles and production. A treaty would put the supply-side of fossil fuels in center focus by creating an international agreement to deal with greenhouse gas emissions at source. A treaty would help keep large amounts of fossil fuels in the ground. 

Why a treaty is necessary

The latest UN Environment Program report on the emissions gap found that nationally determined contributions of emissions imply a temperature rise of three degrees Celsius by 2100. If the emissions gas is not closed by 2030, the goal of staying below two degrees Celsius is out of reach. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest findings calls for a reduction of carbon emissions by 45 percent by 2030 and for investments in fossil fuel extraction and power generation to decrease by up to $.85 trillion by 2050. 

The global demand for oil, gas, and coal is growing. Fossil fuels comprise 81 percent of energy use, according to the International Energy Agency. Fossil fuel use will increase for decades, the IEA projects. However, to keep warming below two degrees Celsius, 80 percent of fossil fuel reserves should not be burned, according to a report by Carbon Tracker. 

Some countries have policies in place to phase out fossil fuels

Although international treaties neglect supply-side solutions, countries are moving to keep fossil fuels in the ground. New Zealand, France, Belize, and Costa Rica have moratoriums on oil exploration in place. France, Germany, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and Uruguay have moratoriums on hydraulic fracturing (fracking). The UK, Spain, and China have set timetables for phasing out existing fossil fuels. Several other countries committed to divesting from fossil fuels. Norway’s sovereign wealth fund divested from coal stocks. Ireland’s Parliament voted to require its sovereign wealth fund to divest from fossil fuel stocks.

The Powering Past Coal Alliance launched in November 2017 as a coalition of national and sub-national governments, businesses, and organizations to advance the transition from coal to clean energy. Over 25 nations are part of the Alliance. These nations have pledged to phase out coal-fired power generation. To be a member of the Alliance, nations must make public declarations they will not build new, unabated coal-fired power stations and will phase out existing ones.

Phasing out subsidies

Fossil fuel subsidies occur in all stages of fossil fuel production. The Production Gap report by the UNEP looked at production plans in 10 key countries. Seven of the countries (China, the United States, Russia, India, Australia, Indonesia, and Canada) are top fossil fuel producers. Three are significant producers with strong climate goals (Germany, Norway, and the UK). What the report found out is that the production of fossil fuels in nearly every national plan exceeds the 2030 levels projected by the IEA. Subsidy reform is a tool governments can use to help make their fossil fuel plans line up with climate goals. 

The will to act

The world is already experiencing climate change impacts. The 2020 hurricane season so far has had 30 named tropical storms and forced forecasters to use the Greek letters of the alphabet. That breaks the record set in 2005 when there were 28 named storms. Hurricanes are not the only climate change impacts this year. California has experienced a record number of devastating wildfires, with 4.1 million acres and counting burned in 2020. 

Do countries have the will to act to keep fossil fuels in the ground so the world can keep warming to the 1.5C goal? Only time will tell

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Are Electric Cars Sustainable?

Communities in the Las Angeles area and the San Joaquin Valley have some of the worst air basins in the country. The transportation sector accounts for more than half of all California’s carbon pollution, 80 percent of smog-forming pollution, and 95 percent of toxic diesel emissions. A recently enacted mandate will help lower air pollution in the golden state.

California Governor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order in September requiring that sales of all new passenger vehicles be zero-emission by 2035. The zero-emission mandate will lower greenhouse gas emissions by 35 percent. Presently, the zero-emissions cars on the market are electric vehicles (EVs). How sustainable are EVs? The key to answering that question is to look at batteries. 

Electric Cars: Reusing EV batteries

Batteries are an essential part of electric cars and other vehicles, whether they are hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs), plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), and all-electric vehicles (EVs). All three types of EVs use lithium-ion batteries. Most of the components of lithium-ion batteries can be recycled. However, the cost of recycling those components is a challenge. Nonetheless, a report by the U.S. Department of Energy found there are no major technical barriers to employing used batteries in stationary applications. 

How EV batteries can be reused once they can no longer be used in a vehicle is a key part of recycling. “Battery design that considers disassembly and recycling is important in order for electric-drive vehicles to succeed from a sustainability standpoint,” according to the Department of Energy. In other words, being able to reuse EV batteries to power stationary things like homes and buildings is the measure of their sustainability. Batteries removed from a car can be used for energy storage in an electricity grid or a house. 

Recycling valuable materials

Most EVs have not been around long enough for their batteries to approach the end of their lives. Not that many post-consumer batteries from EVs are available, which limits the battery recycling infrastructure. Making battery recycling widespread would keep hazardous from entering the waste stream. One of the blocks in battery recycling is recovering high-value materials. 

Once repurposed batteries reach the end of their lives, recovering the valuable materials inside of them occurs. Those materials include stainless steel, copper, aluminum, plastic, cobalt, and lithium salts. VW developed a recycling concept for batteries to return valuable materials to the manufacturing process chain. The company started a pilot plant for recovering materials at its Salzgitter plant in Braunschweig, Germany. The plant can recycle about 1,200 tons of materials recovered from EV batteries, which corresponds to 3,000 vehicle batteries. The company expects to develop other recycling plants, which will help it meet the goal of recycling 97 percent of all raw materials. 

Ethically-sourced materials

There are ethical concerns when it comes to battery production. More than 60 percent of the global supply for cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a country known for exploitative labor practices in its cobalt production. Two companies company set an example. Tesla set a goal of sourcing materials only from North America for its battery production plant. Its battery supplier LG Chem says they have stopped using cobalt sourced from the DRC. BMW announced last year that the cobalt used in EV batteries will come from Australia. 

While Volvo did not commit to sourcing cobalt from outside of the DRC, it did commit to tracing the origin of the cobalt it uses in its electric cars. In 2019, the company announced it would implement global traceability of cobalt used in its batteries by using blockchain technology. The use of blockchain technology will create a transparent and reliable data network that can detect the origin of cobalt.

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The Financial Case For Valuing Nature

Species extinction is accelerating at an unprecedented rate, according to a report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Since 1900, the average abundance of native species decreased by at least 20 percent. Over 40 percent of amphibian species, nearly 33 percent of reef-forming coral, and more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened. 

The massive disruption of nature occurring affects humanity. The health and well-being of plants and animals are tied to human health and well-being. A 2013 study found “ample evidence…that nearly every dimension of human health is being affected” by damaging nature, while a 2007 study found that climate change and other changes to nature pose threats to human health. 

While benefits to human health are clear, is there a financial case for valuing nature? Approximately $44 trillion of global GDP, more than half of the world’s GDP, depends on nature and its services, according to a recent report by the World Economic Forum. The three largest sectors that are very dependent on nature (construction, agriculture, and food and beverages) combined generate nearly $8 trillion of gross value added (GVA). That is about twice the size of Germany’s economy.

Some examples show how valuing nature makes financial sense. The global loss of all pollinators would cause a decrease in annual agricultural output of about $217 billion.  Recent climate research puts a value on carbon captured of up to $600 per ton, which implies a value of forests of over $100 trillion.  Up to one-third of the medicines used today were found originally in plants and other natural substances or derived from naturally occurring substances.

Valuing Nature: Governments must pave the way

The estimated biodiversity financing gap between $598 billion to $824 billion per year over the next ten years can be bridged, according to a recent report by The Paulson Institute, The Nature Conservancy, and the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability. 

Closing the nature financing gap depends heavily on government actions, which means governments must do more to protect nature. Governments need to implement policy reforms such as reforming harmful agricultural subsidies. Governments must also create new financial innovations to increase funding for conservation, promote green investments, and support the development of nature-based climate solutions. 

While the private sector plays a crucial role, governments need to put the right regulatory framework in place, plus incentives and market structures to drive the flow of finances from the private sector into conservation. The only way to stop global biodiversity loss is to ensure that all economies value nature. Accomplishing that goal requires bold political leadership, transformative policies, mechanisms, and incentives that discourage harmful actions and encouraging large scale-finance. 

The report recommends policy actions governments can take immediately to close the nature financing gap. One of those policy actions is protecting their natural capital and expanding biodiversity conservation financing. Other policy actions include using funds strategically to implement the financing mechanisms the report identified and strengthening regulatory and financial enabling conditions to significantly accelerate actions and finance in the private sector for biodiversity conservation.

“While the public sector is crucial, the analysis and recommendations in Financing Nature highlight that there is a realistic pathway for the business and finance sector to go from being part of the problem to being a critical part of the solution to biodiversity loss,” said John Tobin, Professor of Practice of Corporate Sustainability at Cornell University and an authority on biodiversity finance, in a statement.

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Lawsuits Challenge Trump’s Rollback of Obama-Era Power Plant Wastewater Standards

One hallmark of the Trump administration is rolling back Obama-era environmental standards. Environmental groups fight the rollbacks with lawsuits. Nine environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in early November over its rollback of national powerplant wastewater standards limiting water pollution from coal-fired power plants.

Filed in the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, the lawsuit challenges the EPA’s decision to roll back the Obama-era national standard. The EPA’s rollback allows coal-fired power plants to dump wastewater filled with toxic chemicals and heavy metals into rivers and lakes. Toxic heavy metals from coal power plant wastewater cause severe health problems, including cancer, reproductive issues, and impacts on children’s IQ. Wastewater also harms aquatic life. 

The Obama-era rule enhancine power plant wastewater standards

The Obama-era rule prohibited power plants from dumping fly ash or bottom ash wastewater into U.S. waters. It also imposed strict limits on toxic metals and other contaminants in sludge from power plants. Experts projected that the rule would have reduced an estimated 1.4 billion pounds a year of toxic heavy metals and other pollutants in waterways. 

Called the Steam Electric Effluent Limitations and Guidelines (ELG) rule, the EPA issued the rule in 2015. It was the nation’s first pollution standards to limit the number of toxic chemicals and heavy metals power plants can dump into the water. The rule required power plants to achieve zero discharge of fly ash and bottom ash wastewater and set strict limits on discharges of arsenic, mercury, selenium, and nitrogen in scrubber sludge wastewater. The rule also required power plants to implement a closed-looped/zero discharge system for wastewater to remove coal ash in boilers. 

“This absurd step backward is little more than a gift to the dirty fossil fuels industry at the expense of people’s health, endangered wildlife, and water quality,” said Hannah Connor, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Many power plants could easily adopt affordable technologies that dramatically reduce toxic discharges, but with this rule, the EPA is telling their polluter friends not to bother with these common-sense measures.”

The Southern Environmental Law Center lawsuit

The Southern Environmental Law Center filed a lawsuit in early November challenging the Trump administration’s rollback of the Obama-era rule. The lawsuit filed in the  U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit was filed on behalf of the Stokes County Branch of the NAACP, Winyah Rivers Alliance, Appalachian Voices, and Good Stewards of Rockingham, which represent communities downstream and close to coal plants in the Carolinas. 

Two power plants represent the dangers that the rollback of the rule poses. Santee Cooper’s Winyah Plant in South Carolina is set to decommission all its coal-fired units by 2027. The company may not be required to implement pollution controls or meet the weaker limits under the new rule thanks to a loophole. Duke Energy installed new technology to limit wastewater pollution at its plants in North Carolina as required by the 2015 rule. The new rule allows the company to pollute more. Communities in North Carolina experienced increases of byproducts in their treated drinking water that cause cancer due to bromide pollution from upstream coal-fired power plants. 

“This illegal rollback of clean water protections by the Trump administration allows dirty coal-burning plants to dump more toxic substances into our rivers, lakes, and drinking water reservoirs and exposes our communities to more cancer-causing pollution,” said Senior Attorney Frank Holleman, in a statement. “ Instead of protecting people, this administration made it easier for the most polluting and worst run coal-fired plants to dump poisons into the waterways our communities depend upon.”

The good news

There is good news, not just for power plant wastewater standards, but for planet earth: on January 20, 2021, President Trump will leave office. He leaves behind an environmental mess that former Vice-President Joe Biden will be left to clean up. A glance at Biden’s environmental policies indicates he will reinstate Obama-era environmental standards.

Toxic Beaches in the U.S.

Some beaches in the U.S. are so toxic that officials had to close them and post warnings. Toxic algae and bacteria caused public officials to close at least 116 lake and ocean beaches in the U.S. this spring and summer, according to an investigation by the Environmental Working Group. Health officials and other entities in 36 states issued 278 beach closures or warnings from May 5 to September 10. Michigan had the highest amount of closures and advisories, with 69. Florida and 22 while Iowa and Ohio each had 19. 

Water monitoring is another victim of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some government agencies reduced water quality monitoring this year because of budget cuts due to the pandemic and the subsequent economic downturn. Utah is a good example. In June, state officials announced they will not be monitoring Utah Lake for algal blooms for a month because of uncertainty about funding, the Daily Herald reported. The county health department announced on social media that “due to state budget uncertainty, the (Utah) Division of Water Quality and Utah County Health Department are not able to sample, or provide updates for Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) on Utah Lake until at least July 1, 2020.”

An uninformed public

There are problems with the notification systems, the EWG investigation found. Public agencies tend to rely heavily on posting signs at the affected beach, which means that people have no way to find out about a problem until they are at the affected beach. Some public agencies do not post warnings online. Instead, they only issue press releases to the media. “Such a press release may be reported briefly in a local newspaper when the warning is initially issued and not covered again, in spite of ongoing or recurrent contamination,” EWG notes.

There is a problem with relying on the news media to cover beach contamination and closures. Local news outlets across the country “have been hit hard in recent years by mergers, layoffs, furloughs, and newspaper closures,” according to EWG. The result is that many local stories are not covered. 

Most government databases or websites do not archive warnings. Even when states do archive warnings online, as Michigan does, they are difficult to navigate. The Michigan BeachGuard System’s website, for example, focuses on current closures, making it harder to find accurate and complete data about past closures. 

“We found a troubling mish-mash of public safety measures for toxic algae and bacterial contamination of beaches across the country,” said Anne Schechinger, EWG senior analyst of economics and a co-author of the report. “Dozens of different government agencies and other organizations issued warnings with inconsistent wording, unclear direction, and insufficient explanations of human health threats.”

Farm runoff is the major cause of water pollution in the U.S.

Although media reports about beach closures rarely mention the cause of algae or bacteria contamination. Farm runoff is a major cause of water pollution. Manure is often used as a fertilizer and it runs off fields. It contains contaminants like E. coli, salmonella, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and phosphorus, which causes algae blooms. Bodies of water become contaminated by the runoff. Runoff from farms in the upper Midwest have been linked to algae blooms in Lake Erie, throughout Iowa, and on the coast of Mississippi. 

About 40 percent of U.S. land is used for agriculture and agriculture is the leading source of contamination in the country’s rivers and lakes, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Around half a million tons of pesticides, 12 million tons of nitrogen, and four million tons of phosphorus fertilizers are applied every year to crops in the continental U.S. Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) contribute greatly to water contamination. A thousand or more farm animals are held in cramped conditions and produce a huge amount of waste. If that waste is released, it can end up in lakes and rivers. 

Agricultural runoff is “largely not regulated” under the Clean Water Act, according to the EWG investigation. The EWG’s investigation “points to the need to hold the agriculture industry accountable for water pollution – and even more importantly, to prevent pollution before it contaminates our waters,” said Schechinger.

There is a need for a nationwide beach monitoring program. EWG recommends that a national monitoring program provide consistent and accurate testing of bodies of water. In addition, EWG urges universal standards for contamination levels considered unsafe and triggering warnings, easy-to-access archives of past data, and multimedia public communications efforts that clearly convey the contamination issues and the risks they pose.

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