Trump Dismantles Environmental Protections Under Cover of Coronavirus
By Emily Holden
The Trump administration is diligently weakening US environment protections even amid a global pandemic, continuing its rollback as the November election approaches.
During the Covid-19 lockdown, US federal agencies have eased fuel-efficiency standards for new cars; frozen rules for soot air pollution; proposed to drop review requirements for liquefied natural gas terminals; continued to lease public property to oil and gas companies; sought to speed up permitting for offshore fish farms; and advanced a proposal on mercury pollution from power plants that could make it easier for the government to conclude regulations are too costly to justify their benefits.
The government has also relaxed reporting rules for polluters during the pandemic.
Trump's ambitions reach even to the moon, which he has announced he wants the US to mine.
Gina McCarthy, formerly Barack Obama's environment chief, now runs the Natural Resources Defense Council. She said the Trump administration was acting to cut public health protections while the American public is distracted by a public health crisis.
"People right now are hunkered down trying to put food on the table, take care of people who are sick, worry about educating their children at home," McCarthy said. "How many people are going to really be able to sit down and scrutinize these things in any way?"
McCarthy said the government was "literally not interested in the law or science," and that "is going to become strikingly clear as people look at how the administration is handling Covid-19."
The Trump administration is playing both offense and defense, rescinding and rewriting some rules and crafting others that would be time-consuming for a Democratic president to reverse.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has written what critics say will be a weak proposal for climate pollution from airplanes, a placeholder that will hinder stricter regulation.
Trump officials have been attempting to create a coronavirus relief program for oil and gas corporations, a new move in his campaign to back the industry and stymie global climate action. The president has sown distrust of climate science and vowed to exit the Paris climate agreement, which the US can do after the election.
Historians say Trump's presidency has forced a pendulum swing back from the environmental awakening of the 1960s and 70s, when there was bipartisan support for conservation. Protecting the environment – and particularly the climate – is an issue that has become embroiled in political ideology.
"What Trump's done is create a blitzkrieg against the environment … trying to dismantle not just Obama's environmental achievements but turn back the clock to a pre-Richard Nixon day," said Douglas Brinkley, a history professor at Rice University who is writing a book on the subject.
"It's just death by a thousand cuts. It's not one issue, it's just across the board."
The administration is under a tight deadline to secure changes before the election. A US law, the Congressional Review Act, allows lawmakers to more easily rescind regulations or rollbacks issued later in an election year.
"They're hitting a now or never timeline," said Christine Tezak, the managing director at the analysis firm ClearView Energy Partners. "There's a lot they want to get done before the election, just in case."
Some trends are working against Trump – including states advancing environmental goals, and low-cost renewable power and natural gas helping reduce the climate footprint of the electricity sector. Even Houston, an energy hub, has issued a climate action plan. Yet such contributions are not expected to be enough to fulfill America's role in stalling the global crisis.
Environmental advocates have challenged many of the Trump changes in court – and won. The Natural Resources Defense Council has sued 110 times and says it has prevailed in about 90% of lawsuits resolved.
Recently, judges tossed out a permit for the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline and decided the EPA cannot bar scientists who receive federal grants from serving as agency advisers.
Jeff Holmstead, a lawyer with the firm Bracewell who represents regulated industries and was a deputy EPA administrator under George W Bush, argued that many of the changes characterized as "rollbacks" are actually "sensible, reasonable regulatory reforms" or fixes to problems.
"It's impossible to understand the Trump administration's EPA unless you go back and look at the Obama administration," he said. "In many groups there was a sense that there really had been a great deal of regulatory overreach. And even if you disagree with that, the regulatory programs created problems that they didn't come back and fix."
‘This Is About Who We’re Protecting’
Trump's deregulatory agenda has addressed some issues industry would rather were left alone. The agency is changing the way it calculates the benefits of mercury controls for power plants. Companies had already complied with the rule and most didn't want it changed. But the revision is meant to set a precedent for the government to ignore some positive health outcomes of regulation.
Trump's weakened standards often go against science too, critics say.
Last month, for example, the EPA decided not to tighten rules for soot pollution, refuting rebutting guidance from experts that more stringent standards would save lives. The EPA has also repopulated advisory boards with representatives from industry and conservative states and is trying to change what science it can consider when developing health protections.
If a Democrat takes the White House, it will take years to reverse some changes. Moving faster would require Democrats holding both chambers of Congress. Even then, industry would fight hard.
Christopher Cook, the environment chief for Boston, said Trump's efforts had been "incongruous with all the actions that major cities are taking."
"The thing I would ask most Americans to consider when they're supporting stronger regulation is that this isn't about what we're protecting against, this is about who we're protecting," Cook said, noting that places with more pollution are faring worse under the coronavirus pandemic.
"Covid has been a dry run for the climate crisis. We've seen the populations that Covid affects because it attacks the respiratory system. We can't continue with bad air in America."
This story originally appeared in The Guardian and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
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By Victoria Masterson
Using one of the world's problems to solve another is the philosophy behind a Norwegian start-up's mission to develop affordable housing from 100% recycled plastic.
Sustainable Homes<p>UN-Habitat says an <a href="https://unhabitat.org/un-habitat-aims-to-use-plastic-waste-to-support-housing-for-all" target="_blank">estimated 60% of people living in urban areas of Africa are in informal settlements</a>. At the same time, between 1990 and 2017, African countries imported around 230 metric tonnes of plastic, "which mostly ended up in dump sites creating a massive environmental challenge," the agency adds.</p><p>UN-Habitat deputy executive director, Victor Kisob, said the aim of the partnership with Othalo was to "promote adequate, sustainable and affordable housing for all."</p>
Artist's impression of an Othalo community, imagined by architect Julien De Smedt. Othalo<p>Othalo's process involves shredding plastic waste and mixing it with other elements, including non-flammable materials. Components are used to build up to four floors, with a home of 60 square metres using eight tons of recycled plastic. A factory with one production line can produce 2,800 housing units annually.</p><p>Following successful laboratory tests, Othalo's factory in Estonia has started producing components to build three demonstration homes for Kenya's capital, Nairobi; Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon and Dakar, the capital of Senegal.</p><p>Othalo founder Frank Cato Lahti has been developing and testing the technology since 2016 in partnership with <a href="https://www.sintef.no/en/" target="_blank">SINTEF</a>, a 70-year-old independent research organization in Trondheim, Norway, and experts at Norway's <a href="https://en.uit.no/startsida" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">University of Tromsø</a>.</p>
Othalo founder Frank Cato Lahti. Othalo<p>Almost <a href="https://www.un.org/development/desa/publications/2018-revision-of-world-urbanization-prospects.html" target="_blank">seven out of every 10 people in the world are expected to live in urban areas by 2050</a>. More than 90% of this growth will take place in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean.</p><p>"In the absence of effective urban planning, the consequences of this rapid urbanization will be dramatic," UN-Habitat warns.</p><p>Lack of proper housing and growth of slums, inadequate and outdated infrastructure, escalating poverty and unemployment, and pollution and health issues, are just some of the effects.</p><p>Mindsets, policies, and approaches towards urbanization need to change for the growth of cities and urban areas to be turned into opportunities that will leave nobody behind, UN-Habitat says.</p>
Pioneers of Change<p>Reimagining cities and communities for greater resilience and sustainability was a key topic at the<a href="https://www.weforum.org/events/pioneers-of-change-summit-2020" target="_blank"> World Economic Forum's Pioneers of Change Summit 2020</a>.</p><p>The digital event brought together innovators and stakeholders from around the world to explore solutions to the challenges facing enterprises, governments and society.</p><p>Opening the summit, <a href="https://www.weforum.org/events/pioneers-of-change-summit-2020/sessions/opening-plenary-8f731cbc65" target="_blank">Stephan Mergenthaler, the Forum's Head of Strategic Intelligence and a member of the Executive Committee</a>, said: "We need to change the way we produce, the way we live and interact in our cities to make this transition to net-zero emissions a reality…</p><p>"And as this year has illustrated so dramatically, we need to make every effort that we keep populations healthy, if we want to avoid jeopardizing all this progress."</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/11/un-africa-recycled-plastic-housing/" target="_blank">World Economic Forum</a>.</em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649069252#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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By Dolf Gielen and Morgan Bazilian
John Kerry helped bring the world into the Paris climate agreement and expanded America's reputation as a climate leader. That reputation is now in tatters, and President-elect Joe Biden is asking Kerry to rebuild it again – this time as U.S. climate envoy.
Energy Is at the Center of the Climate Challenge<p>The <a href="https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/1/" target="_blank">effects of climate change</a> are already evident across the globe, from <a href="https://theconversation.com/100-degrees-in-siberia-5-ways-the-extreme-arctic-heat-wave-follows-a-disturbing-pattern-141442" target="_blank">extreme heat waves</a> to <a href="https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/12/" target="_blank">sea level rise</a>. But while the challenge is daunting, there is hope. Solar and wind power have become the <a href="https://www.irena.org/publications/2020/Jun/Renewable-Power-Costs-in-2019" target="_blank">cheapest forms of power generation globally</a>, and technology progress and innovation continue apace to support a transition to clean energy.</p><p>In the U.S. under a Biden administration, long-term national climate legislation will depend on who controls the Senate, and that won't be clear until after two run-off elections in Georgia in January.</p><p>But there is no shortage of <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/features/2020-biden-climate-change-advice/" target="_blank">ideas for ways Biden</a> could still take action even if his proposals are blocked in Congress. For example, he could use executive orders and direct government agencies to tighten regulations on greenhouse gas emissions; increase research and development in clean energy technologies; and empower states to exceed national standards, <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-autos-emissions-california/defying-trump-california-locks-in-vehicle-emission-deals-with-major-automakers-idUSKCN25D2CH" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">as California did in the past with auto emission standards</a>. A focus on a just and equitable transition for communities and people affected by the decline of fossil fuels will also be key to creating a sustainable transition.</p><p>The U.S. position as the world's largest oil and gas producer and consumer creates political challenges for any administration. U.S. forays into European energy security are often treated with suspicion. Recently, France blocked <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/frances-engie-backs-out-of-u-s-lng-deal-11604435609" target="_blank">a multi-billion dollar contract</a> to buy U.S. liquefied natural gas because of concerns about limited emissions regulations in Texas.</p><p>Strengthening cooperation and partnerships with like-minded countries will be critical to bring about a transition to cleaner energy as well as sustainability in agriculture, forestry, water and other sectors of the global economy.</p>
Creating a Global Sustainable Transition<p>How the world recovers from COVID-19's economic damage could help drive a lasting shift in the global energy mix.</p><p>Nearly one-third of Europe's US$2 trillion economic relief package <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-07-21/eu-approves-biggest-green-stimulus-in-history-with-572-billion-plan" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">involves investments that are also good for the climate</a>. The European Union is also strengthening its 2030 climate targets, though each country's energy and climate plans will be critical for successfully implementing them. The <a href="https://joebiden.com/clean-energy/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Biden plan</a> – including a $2 trillion commitment to developing sustainable energy and infrastructure – is aligned with a global energy transition, but its implementation is also uncertain.</p><p>Once Biden takes office, Kerry will be joining ongoing <a href="https://www.un.org/en/conferences/energy2021/about#:%7E:text=The%20overarching%20goal%20of%20the,2030%20Agenda%20for%20Sustainable%20Development.&text=Accelerate%20delivery%20of%20United%20Nations,related%20issues%20at%20all%20levels." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high-level discussions on the energy transition</a> at the U.N. General Assembly and other gatherings of international leaders. With the U.S. no longer obstructing work on climate issues, the G-7 and G-20 have more potential for progress on energy and climate.</p><p>Lots of technical details still need to be worked out, including international trade frameworks and standards that can help countries lower greenhouse gas emissions enough to keep global warming in check. <a href="https://www.carbonpricingleadership.org/what" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Carbon pricing</a> and <a href="https://www.csis.org/analysis/how-can-europe-get-carbon-border-adjustment-right" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">carbon border adjustment taxes</a>, which create incentive for companies to reduce emissions, may be part of it. A consistent and comprehensive set of national energy transition plans will also be needed.</p><p>The global shift to <a href="https://www.irena.org/publications/2019/Jan/A-New-World-The-Geopolitics-of-the-Energy-Transformation" target="_blank">clean energy will also have geopolitical implications for countries and regions</a>, and this will have a profound impact on wider international relations. Kerry, with his experience as secretary of state in the Obama administration, and Biden's plan to make the climate envoy position part of the National Security Council, may help mend these relations. In doing so, the U.S. may again join the wider community of countries willing to lead.</p>
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By Maria Caffrey
As we approach the holidays I, like most people, have been reflecting on everything 2020 has given us (or taken away) while starting to look ahead to 2021.