While there is a wealth of climate cases pending in courts across the world, success for climate activists has been very limited. Last year, in the Urgenda case, the Dutch Supreme Court affirmed an earlier lower court decision finding that the government had not done enough to cut greenhouse gas emissions. This French decision is apparently the first in France finding the government liable for climate harms.
Of course, the best news today was the inauguration of President Biden. But as an added bonus, he has brought the US back into the Paris Climate Agreement with this simple acceptance of the Treaty. Since the Paris Agreement is largely binding, at least with respect to the substantive emission reduction commitments, and given that the US was only out for a little more than 2 months, it’s as if the US never left!
Now, for students of international environmental law, the next question to ask would be this: how can this simple “acceptance” of the Agreement make the US a party? Why is Senate advice and consent not necessary?
On October 30, 2020, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and the State Water Resources Control Board hosted a joint workshop for water utilities and assorted consumer advocacy groups to address water affordability and operational challenges aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic. (The workshop was held pursuant to Rulemaking 17-06-024: Water Affordability During COVID-19.) Since January 2020, the number of customers behind on their water bills has steadily risen in the following months up until the time of this workshop. This has not been a surprise due to the massive unemployment caused by COVID-19.
Unfortunately, demand and competition for water has remained undiminished, even as California continues to face rising water shortage challenges. People still need to water their lawns, flush their toilets, and grow their food. Cultural differences between northern and southern California, priority disagreements between urban and agricultural interests, and an increasingly lopsided curve of demand and supply from a growing population in an area greatly affected by climate change have exacerbated the problems. And the icing on the cake in solving these water use tensions is Article X, section 2 of the California Constitution which declares that all Californians have a constitutional right to water.
As a result, consumers using the water system without the ability to pay for it have aggravated a financially strained system. As of 2014, California was ranked as the number 1 state in need of water infrastructure repair. With customers unable to pay their bills, how can we tackle this problem? How can a system without the ability to repair itself continue to deliver safe drinking water? As an additional layer to this quandary, there are over 100 investor-owned water utilities in the CPUC’s jurisdiction, as compared to just a handful of gas or electric utilities. With each water utility bringing its own unique and complex problems to the table, ensuring the supply of safe and affordable drinking water presents a problem far more complex than electric power distribution.
As a short-term measure, the CPUC has imposed emergency protection for consumers to avoid disconnection due to unpaid bills. Unfortunately for many, the CPUC only oversees investor-owned utilities, and thus the CPUC measure only applies to a limited number of people in the state. Others will need to find alternative means of keeping their water on. More importantly, neither water shut-offs for delinquent customers nor emergency measures preventing disconnection due to unpaid bills address the long-terms financial challenges for water utilities with respect to maintaining an aging water infrastructure, which continues to depreciate. At this point, we must put a Band-Aid on the system and float it forward, so to speak, as we continue to discuss what equitable solutions we can offer to enforce this constitutional right for California residents.
Reducing food waste is one of the most important things we can do as individuals to fight the release of greenhouse gases (GHG) into the environment. The food supply chain accounts for nearly a third of worldwide GHG emissions. These gases contribute to climate change, which disproportionately burdens developing countries. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations estimates that, if the world’s food waste was a country, it would be the third-highest emitter of GHGs, behind only the U.S. and China. While the majority of food waste is the result of food rejected for imperfections even before it reaches consumers, consumer-generated food waste in the U.S. contributes 2% of yearly GHG emissions nationally. Reducing such consumer food waste can make a meaningful contribution toward the reduction of GHG emissions, including through simple measures such as buying only what is needed, using every bit of it, and accepting imperfect fruits and vegetables. However, one measure that remains underutilized is composting of food waste. Empowering consumers to engage in composting can help mitigate GHG emissions as well as produce valuable environmental co-benefits.
It is estimated that a worldwide effort to implement composting could reduce GHG emissions by 2.3 billion tons over the next 30 years. Composting converts organic waste into soil carbon, reducing the methane produced by decomposing food waste in landfills. Compost made from food waste can be put back into the agricultural system, improving soil quality and increasing productivity. Adding compost to the soil also aids in long-term carbon sequestration, because composted material provides the carbon and nutrients necessary for the soil microbes that create stabilized forms of carbon in soil. On a large scale, composting provides the interconnected benefits of increased soil health, reduction of GHGs, and improved agricultural productivity. On a smaller scale, composting makes it easier to produce food at home. Sourcing food locally can help reduce the GHG emissions from fossil fuel combustion in the agricultural supply chain.
Vermiculture, or composting with worms, provides an efficient, odorless, and space-conscious alternative to bin composting. Worm bins can easily be kept in small spaces, such as under the sink, or outdoors (with sufficient insulation). While many species of worms can be used in vermiculture, red wigglers (Eisenia foetida) and European nightcrawlers (Eisenia hortensis) are the most commonly used. These worms can eat a combination of food waste and paper products. Red wigglers eat about half their weight in food waste every day—that means 1,000 worms (the most common number to start with) can eat about half a pound of food per day. European nightcrawlers are commonly used in combination with red wigglers because they grow much larger and feed in the lower layers of the bin. As they eat, composting worms excrete castings, a nutrient-rich humus that can be used as a safe, organic fertilizer. Worm casting fertilizer is especially valuable because it contains beneficial soil microbes, has a neutral pH, and, unlike other fertilizers, will not burn plants because its nitrogen is released slowly. Vermicompost has also been shown to reduce plant disease—beneficial microbes from worm castings can colonize the surface of a seed, protecting it from infection. Using compost and worm castings as natural fertilizers also provides an opportunity to reduce water pollution and greenhouse gas production. Excess fertilizer pollutes waterways and can be converted by microbes to nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Bin composting can be time-consuming, and takes up more space and effort than many can dedicate to it. However, vermicomposting is a concrete step that individuals can use to take on climate change, especially if they feel helpless in the face of the climate crisis and would like to take responsibility for their food waste. It is easy, fun, and can be done almost anywhere. I began worm farming in July, and already have a colony that consumes the weekly waste of a family that shops in bulk at Costco. While the benefits worm castings have provided to my garden are hard to measure, my anecdotal evidence is that there was an explosion of growth in the weeks following the first introduction of vermicompost. My worms keep pounds of food scraps and paper products from landfills monthly, and, as the colony grows, they will eat more.
As the climate crisis worsens, contributing to droughts and food shortages, we should take advantage of every opportunity to reduce GHGs and increase agricultural efficiency. Municipal governments should reduce GHG emissions from food waste by incorporating vermicompost into waste removal. Governments should also provide vermicompost education to citizens, like this instructional video from the City of Sydney. Governments could also encourage vermicomposting with tax incentives for restaurants and grocery stores, which are perfect candidates for vermicomposting because of their high volume of organic waste. Vermicomposting is just one of the ways in which we can reduce waste, increase the availability of locally grown food, and take responsibility for our emissions in high-income countries.
The fire season for 2020 so far, has been the worst on record in California’s history. Unfortunately, as climate change is expected to enhance the duration, frequency, and severity of heatwaves, it is unlikely to remain an exception in regard to wildfires. This year alone, Cal Fire estimates that 4,197,628 acres have already burned. Five of the six largest fires in California history started in August and September of 2020.
California faced an added difficulty entering this fire season due to a shortage of inmate firefighters after prisons released many individuals early due to COVID-19 outbreaks. The Conservation Camp Program has operated since 1915, allowing inmate volunteers with sustained good behavior and without violent records to support government agencies as they respond to fires. When not actively fighting fires, these inmates perform crucial conservation and community service projects, such as clearing dead brush and fire fuel, maintaining parks, and reforestation.
Until recently, many of these volunteer inmates were unable to secure employment as firefighters after release. However, Governor Gavin Newsom signed AB-2147 into law on September 11, 2020, allowing prisoners who received “valuable training and [placed] themselves in danger assisting firefighters to defend the life and property of Californians” to petition courts to dismiss their convictions after release. A clean record will enable them to receive an EMT certification, which most municipal fire departments require. Although Cal Fire, the U.S. Forest Service, and hotshot crews do not require EMT certifications and already employ many former prisoners, this new law will increase the competitiveness of former inmates for jobs in those organizations and increase their opportunities for promotion.
This is precisely the type of program needed to truly rehabilitate nonviolent offenders: allowing them to have their records expunged upon release as appreciation of their discipline and courage to fight dangerous fires and providing them valuable, marketable skills so that they can achieve success after release. However, more is necessary to help reintegrate these individuals into society as productive citizens.
Fortunately, the emerging clean energy economy and the ongoing transition from non-renewable energy sources provide just such opportunity for job training in a new and essential industry sector. The Brookings Institution, a public policy think tank, considers a push for workforce development efforts to be essential to the success of any federal or state efforts to transition to clean energy. The shift to renewable energy will demand a sizeable workforce as the market for clean designs, tech, and other advanced industries expands. Offering specialized training to inmates in skilled trade positions would help establish the U.S. as competitive and capable in the green energy infrastructure sector. Most important for inmates who have served their time, it would ensure competitive wages and provide an opportunity for them to gain valuable skills. Whether the transition to clean energy is accomplished through the Green New Deal or other programs, rising demand for clean infrastructure and energy jobs presents an opportunity to create a more equitable future for all, including those who have served their time.
Environmental concern about meat and dairy production has been long-standing. The five largest meat and dairy corporations (JBS, Tyson, Cargill, Dairy Farmers of America, and Fonterra) are responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the giant oil conglomerate ExxonMobil. Factory farms pollute the environment by releasing large volumes of manure, chemicals, and antibiotics into the water. Antimicrobial resistance in the natural world continues to increase because livestock is frequently treated with antimicrobials for a variety of diseases. And as factory farms make serious contributions to ocean pollution, the resulting algal blooms kill marine life. The list of negative environmental impacts from raising livestock can go on for pages. Meanwhile, global meat consumption continues to rise, prompting companies like JBS to increase production. With climate change being the reality of everyday life, the impact from factory farms and raising livestock needs to be addressed as a public health concern. The government can address the negative impacts that factory farms have by reducing the amount of subsidies that factory farms receive and shift such support to sustainable vegetable and fruit farming instead.
Livestock production in the US became industrialized after World War II and caused the consumption of meat to rise sharply. Nowadays, meat and dairy production in the US receive 63% of federal government subsidies, while fruits and vegetables only receive 0.04%. At the same time, most of the subsidies go to large corporations instead of smaller farmers. This has not only drastically reduced the price of meat in the US, but also made factory farms a necessity to keep up with the demand for cheap meat.
Lowering the percentage of subsidies that factory farms receive is a step in the right direction to address the negative impact on climate and the environment, especially because meat and dairy production constitutes one of the world’s biggest sources of livestock-related CO2 emissions. The price of meat when unsubsidized will better reflect the price of the environmental destruction that it takes to produce it. Furthermore, with plant-based diets and foods becoming increasingly popular over the past decade, eliminating meat and dairy subsidies would also be aligned with the direction of the nation’s diet. Shifting subsidies to sustainable vegetables and fruits will then lower their cost and encourage healthier and more environmentally conscious food purchases. In the end, lowering the subsidies on meat and transitioning that subsidy to more sustainable foods will change how much meat is purchased and produced and begin to reduce the harm that the industry has on the environment.
This climate change-related virtual fellowship opportunity, sponsored by the UNFCCC, was forwarded to me recently. It looks quite interesting; targets young professionals (under age 30).
During the midst of the 2020 election, Americans heard a common phrase in the presidential debates and other online forums: will Joe Biden ban fracking? Many might ask “what is fracking?” It is the process of extracting natural gas or oil from shale and other forms of rock by blasting water, chemicals, and sand at pressures high enough to crack the rock to allow the gas and oil to flow to the surface. Because fracking makes it easier to obtain hard to reach sources of oil and gas, it has transformed the energy industry in the US. The technology has been popular in many states, including in Pennsylvania, a swing state in Presidential elections with one of the most electoral votes.
Apart from simply being a fossil fuel extraction technology, fracking has been extremely controversial because of its many negative environmental impacts. Fracking contributes to groundwater contamination, uses large amounts of water, causes earthquakes due to the pressure on the rock formation, and allows greenhouse gases to escape into the atmosphere. Fracking has also raised serious public health concern — fracking is linked to cancer, respiratory and neurological problems, birth defects, and premature mortality, especially for industry workers who are exposed on-site.
In spite of such environmental and health concerns, President-elect Joe Biden has promised not ban fracking, mostly because fracking makes up a large portion of the energy industry and is a source of jobs and economic prosperity in states where thousands of people work in the industry. Instead, the President-elect’s plan is to stop issuing new fracking permits on federal land, while allowing fracking to continue on private lands.
The plan is an effort to please people on both sides of the aisle — no new fracking on public lands to appease those who are concerned about the environmental impact of fracking, while making a concession to states and industry by continuing to allow fracking on private lands to be regulated by states. Yet, it is also unclear how much this compromise will accomplish for the environment. In states such as Pennsylvania, allowing fracking to continue on private land will have little effect on curbing this practice since most fracking there occurs on private land. In fact, oil and gas production utilizing fracking technology on federally owned land constitutes less than 10% of the US total. Thus, even though the Biden’s plan constitutes an important compromise and valuable first step in addressing the problems associated with this controversial gas extraction technology, it is not likely to make a significant difference in terms of a nationwide positive impact. It remains critical for strict regulations and permit requirements to be imposed on ongoing and future fracking activities once the Biden Administration begins its work, regardless of whether they occur on private or public lands. Otherwise, this initial policy compromise is unlikely to accomplish much for the environment and will be little more than political cover.
In 2019 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service promulgated significant rollbacks to its regulations implementing the Endangered Species Act, especially sections 4 and 7 of the Act. These address the endangered species listing and delisting process, designation of critical habitat, and consultation with other federal agencies. Interior Department Secretary Bernhardt has stated that these roll backs will make the ESA more efficient and “ensures more resources can go where they will do the most good: on-the-ground conservation.” While efficiency and being pro-industry are important issues for conservative administrators, I believe that these rollbacks significantly weaken the ESA’s ability to protect this nation’s important biodiversity and will increase the likelihood of species extinctions.
One the most detrimental changes was the removal of regulatory requirements that listing decisions be made “without reference to possible economic or other impacts of such determination.” Under the new amendment to the ESA regulations, wildlife listing decisions may now consider the economic impacts of such a determination. This rollback is obviously beneficial to private landowners who are subject to the ESA. However, commentators have argued that listing decisions should be made solely on the best scientific data available for species preservation rather than economic concerns.
Another important change related to the situations in which a critical habitat no longer needs to be designated at the time of listing. Agencies will now also have to satisfy a higher standard of scrutiny for unoccupied areas to be designated as a “critical habitat”. Agencies now must first evaluate occupied habitats before considering unoccupied habitat for designation as a critical habitat. In addition, unoccupied habitat must now contain one or more physical or biological features essential to the species survival to qualify for “critical habitat” designation.
Finally, the most significant change to the ESA is arguably the removal of the “blanket 4(d) rule”. Previously, Section 4(d) of the ESA automatically provided “threatened” species with the same “take” protections of “endangered” species. With the removal of this blanket rule, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will now need to establish a specific take provision for each “threatened” species on a case-by-case basis. Even though this 4(d) rescission only applies to future “threatened” species listings or downgrading of species listed as endangered to threatened status, commentators have warned that rolling back Section 4(d) could prevent newly listed “threatened” species from receiving adequate protection. In particular, it has been estimated that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will need to more than double its output of species-specific rules to maintain the same level of protection that was previously afforded under the ESA.
These pro-efficiency and pro-industry changes to the ESA have undermined the Act’s ability to protect our nations’ species. I believe these changes are a major step in the wrong direction. Our country’s wildlife already face the ever-increasing destructive dangers of climate change which are seen in yearly devastating wildfires and hurricanes. These issues coupled with the rollbacks of the ESA puts our wildlife at a great risk of extinction.
On August 27th, 2020, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) approved Agenda Item 27, a Biomethane Standard Interconnection Tariff (R. 13-02-008). In layman’s terms, this rulemaking created a standard process for interconnecting renewable natural gas producers with any investor-owned utility pipelines. For many citizens, this groundbreaking ruling represents a huge step towards decarbonizing our power infrastructure, since it creates an efficient process for lessening our reliance on fossil fuels in our power system.
Furthermore, there is one more significant issue. As more and more users begin to leave the gas system, fewer consumers, oftentimes low-income communities, are left to continue paying for the maintenance of the entirety of the infrastructure, which are costs that would otherwise have been supported by the customers that have switched. Similar issues arise with the Power Charge Indifference Adjustment (PCIA) exit fee which is paid by electricity users that want to buy their power from Community Choice Aggregates instead of their traditional utilities; this charge was used to supplement the transmission costs for utilities. While similar to the gas system change, the PCIA charge is triggered by users simply switching providers, rather than moving off the transmission infrastructure entirely. Thus as Gridworks, a consulting organization focusing on transforming our energy system for the future, puts it, we have two paths forward:
However, there is also different side to this debate. Since much of the natural gas system, especially the transmission pipeline portion, is prone to leakage, it is one of the largest contributors to atmospheric pollution. Thus, some view this ruling as allowing the natural gas industry to entrench itself in an effort to stay relevant and provide different kinds of gas, contrary to calls for widespread electrification of buildings, cars, and homes. For instance, the city of Berkeley recently became the first in the nation to prohibit natural gas pipeline hookups to new buildings. Consequently, the system of pipeline infrastructure is slowly falling into disarray with an uncertain plan for its future, as communities are likely to continue to leave the system.
- A smart, managed path that maximizes benefits and minimizes costs for everyone
- An uncontrolled path is reactive and costly
The upshot of Gridworks’ analysis of these two paths is that California needs to put a plan in place to address this soon so as to avoid the inevitable scramble of supporting an inefficient and outdated gas system. Yet, this is easier said than done. In effect, this will require creation of a formal state-wide effort ensuring a sound and sensible transition off the system, while adjusting gas customer rates in a way that incentivizes the exploration of alternative external funding sources to recover gas transition costs. Unfortunately, the 2019 report by Gridworks, a leader in the energy consulting field, offers no further guidance than big picture considerations, and a grim reminder that this transformation will be one of the most challenging tasks facing us in the 2020 decade.