Equilibrium/Sustainability — WHO says tobacco industry endangers environment 

The World Health Organization (WHO) released a report Sunday that found the cultivation and distribution of tobacco may be wreaking havoc on the global environment.  

The tobacco industry’s carbon footprint from production, processing and transportation is equivalent to one-fifth of the carbon dioxide generated by the commercial airline sector each year, the global health body found. 

The report, released on World No Tobacco Day, revealed that the tobacco industry costs the world more than 8 million human lives, 600 million trees and 200,000 hectares of forest (494,000 acres).  

And most of that tobacco is cultivated in low- and middle-income countries, where water and farmland are sorely needed to produce food, according to WHO.   

“Tobacco products are the most littered item on the planet, containing over 7,000 toxic chemicals, which leech into our environment when discarded,” Ruediger Krech, director of health promotion at WHO, said in a statement.  

WHO officials called upon countries and cities to follow the examples of cities like San Francisco and countries like France and Spain to enact legislation that holds the tobacco industry responsible for cleaning up the pollution it creates. 

Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. We’re Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Send us tips and feedback. A friend forward this newsletter to you? Subscribe here.

Today we’ll hear some thoughts from Gov. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) on how he says the West can cope with ongoing drought conditions and environmental challenges. Then we’ll look at how the global return to coal is eroding that fuel’s reputation as a cheap alternative — with contradictory climate results. 

Polis: West must boost water efficiency

With ongoing drought conditions looming over the western U.S., Gov. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) said that empowering local agencies to drive state-level policy could be instrumental in ensuring a more certain water future.  

“This is really one of the biggest issues that our western states face,” Polis continued, referring to the drought.  

Equilibrium spoke with the governor last week about both the future of the Democratic party ahead of the midterm elections and the most pressing sustainability issues that the U.S. West is confronting. The threat of drought was front and center.  

Regional collaboration: Polis said that he regularly meets with members of the Western Governors Association, through which he and his colleagues discuss how states can collaborate on this issue. 

“It’s a question of making sure we have a dynamic and strong future for [agriculture] production in our states,” he said, noting that such production will be coupled with the needs “of fast-growing cities and suburbs.” 

Best practices, maximizing quality of life: “What that means is implementing best practices in agriculture, around soil health, around more efficient water usage, looking at new and better technology, and of course in the urban and suburban areas, more water efficiency without sacrificing our quality of life,” Polis added.  

Local water projects: Just last week, the governor signed two water bills focused on decreasing groundwater use and financing water conservation projects, Colorado Newsline reported.  

The first bill will allocate $60 million of federal COVID-19 relief funds for curbing groundwater use, while the second provides millions of dollars for local water infrastructure projects approved by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, according to Newsline.  

Elevating local agencies in state policy: Polis said that these “really creative, ground-up projects,” which join a series of other recent water initiatives, will enable “better stewardship of our water.” 

“They were from the water basins themselves elevated to the state — not the state legislature telling any part of our state what to do,” the governor said. 

“They were from the water contacts in the communities saying this is what we need to provide for a more water secure future,” he added.  

Sustainable living: Asked whether he might consider mandatory water cutbacks,  a possibility that has been under debate in California, Polis only said that the discussion in Colorado focuses on “how we can reduce water usage and live in a sustainable way in a growing state.” 

This means evaluating public spaces, decreasing water usage, promoting xeriscaping and increasing water efficiency, “which also saves the residents money on their water bills,” according to the governor.  

CURBING AIR POLLUTION WITH ELECTRIC VEHICLES  

Polis recognized that the West also faces a battle to mitigate air pollution, maintaining that there are “really bright skies on the horizon.”  

While air pollution comes from a variety of sources, the governor pinpointed transportation as the main culprit.  

But he expressed optimism about a prospective shift, noting that last month, 13 percent of the vehicles sold in Colorado were electric.  

Shifting toward electric vehicles: “This transition is happening rapidly,” Polis said. “We’re working to accelerate it — moving towards replacing nearly every school bus in the state with an electric school bus within five years.”  

State and consumer action: Polis touted a bipartisan state infrastructure bill that helped build out fast charging stations across Colorado, as well as a partnership to install charging stations at all state parks.  

But he attributed much of this shift to consumers, whom he described as “really embracing the lower costs and better reliability.”  

A boost from D.C. could help further: Colorado may be a forerunner in the country’s electric vehicle transition, but Polis stressed that such advances could “go even further with the right kind of climate package out of Washington.” 

“I particularly hope that Congress can come together around a climate package that accelerates the electric vehicle transition,” he said.  

To read about Polis’s strategies for staying resilient in a “purplish” state, click here

New reliance on coal causes cost spike

From the EU and U.S. to India and China, the mission to slow climate change is being delayed by a surging reliance on coal, a carbon-polluting fuel that has proven necessary to keep lights and air conditioning on in the face of rising summer temperatures. 

But that sudden growth in demand is robbing coal of its usual competitive advantage over both renewables and methane — the biggest component of natural gas. 

Backing off climate promises: In Europe, the British government announced Monday that it would keep coal plants open this winter that it had intended to close, Reuters reported. 

And Germany will keep online several coal-fired plants till 2024 as “reserve power” in case of further disruptions to supplies from Russia, The New York Times reported. 

Surging price: The rise in demand has Central Appalachian coal (a key U.S. benchmark) is currently trading at $125 per ton. This cost is about 40 percent above where it was before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and more than twice where it was this time in 2021, according to Nasdaq. 

That works out to about $58 per megawatt hour, which is just below the current $60 per megawatt hour price of methane, based on calculations by energy analytics firm RBN Energy. 

Expect those prices to keep climbing: They could hit $500 per ton worldwide by the end of 2022, Reuters reported early this week. 

That is the equivalent of $29 per megawatt hour in gas prices, according to RBN’s formula. 

Newly cost-competitive: Renewables are now cheaper than coal and methane. The price for a new solar installation is around $25 per megawatt hour, according to analysis from S&P Global. 

That’s less than half the current price to run an existing coal plant, which is why India is planning to ramp down its use of 81 coal plants over the next four years while it stands up new renewable capacity, the southwestern Indian daily Deccan Herald reported. 

But that will take time: For now, India is still facing power shortages as its existing coal plants starve, according to Times Now, part of the country’s Times media group. 

INDIA AND CHINA TREAT CLIMATE CRISIS WITH MORE COAL 

Few countries are as dependent on coal as China and India — respectively the world’s first- and second-ranked consumer, importers and producers, according to the Deccan Herald. 

With electricity demand rising before summer alongside global coal prices, both countries are beefing up their internal supplies — with potentially grievous global climate costs. 

Going big at home: Beijing is planning 169 new coal mines — 76 percent of all new global coal capacity — as part of an emergency coal surge in response to last year’s power crisis, according to the South China Morning Post. 

And India’s Power Ministry intends to increase coal output by 100 million tons, according to Power Magazine. 

That’s the equivalent of about 43 million gas-powered cars, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

Don’t forget the methane: In addition to the carbon dioxide released from burning that coal, the surge in coal production is also likely to be responsible for a huge surge in the potent climate pollutant methane, The Washington Post reported. 

The methane emissions from China’s new coal projects could hit 6 million tons per year, according to estimates from environmental nonprofit Global Energy Monitor. 

That’s the equivalent of emissions from 32 million cars or 19 million homes, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

A brutal irony: India wouldn’t have its current power shortages if Delhi had just kept to its promises made before the pivotal 2015 U.N. climate agreement was signed in Paris to install 175 gigawatts of new renewable power by 2030, according to Indian environmental nonprofit Climate Risk Horizons. 

Not just India: Germany’s current power woes, which have Berlin returning to coal as well, also rose in part from failures to meet its own clean energy goals, according to the New York Times.  

Transport Tuesday 

A green vision for the future of railways, Egypt to get rail network to rival U.S. Northeast and shortages in a cheap part bolster the case for electric cars. 

Getting railways ready for a more sustainable future 

High speed rail from Red Sea to Mediterranean 

  • German company Siemens is building the world’s sixth-largest high-speed rail line in Egypt, with a network of 60 cities linked by carbon-reducing electric trains capable of travel at 140 miles per hour, CNBC reported. 

For want of a harness, an engine is lost 

  • Shortages of wire harnesses — a “humble” part that bundles cables together in internal combustion engine cars — are accelerating a long-term global switch to electric vehicles, Reuters reported. That’s easier said than done. 

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

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