Equilibrium/Sustainability — Chimpanzee poop helps fight illegal wildlife trade

The world’s largest genetic survey of chimpanzee poop is helping scientists and forest police combat Africa’s illegal wildlife trade. 

By surveying 828 chimpanzee fecal samples from their 1.6 million mile range across equatorial Africa, scientists have created the world’s largest genetic map of chimpanzee populations, according to a study published on Wednesday in Cell Press. 

Previously, when chimpanzees were captured from smugglers, authorities often struggled to figure out where they came from, according to a 2020 study in Nature. 

But now authorities can place a chimpanzee captured from traffickers within 60 miles of its home, according to a statement accompanying the release.  

The new poop-supported genomic map helps our forest cousins get back home, and aids in proactively identifying poaching hotspots that need more enforcement — all without disturbing the chimpanzees themselves, the Cell Press study found. 

These non-invasive samples offer the best of all worlds — a valuable source of genomic DNA that can be collected without ever touching the animals, co-author Tomas Marques-Bonet of the Institute for Biological Evolution said in a statement.  

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 look at how the world’s nations are falling behind on a race to eradicate a well-known cancer-causing toxin. Then we’ll look at moves by the Biden administration to encourage the growth of clean energy, even as the Environmental Protection Agency is choked by lack of funds.  

Nations behind on global targets for toxic compounds

Most countries are unlikely to fulfill an international pledge made to eliminate their stocks of highly hazardous polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) compounds, a new study has found. 

The report, published in Environmental Science & Technology on Wednesday, found that more than 10 million tons of PCB-containing materials remain around the world — endangering public health and the environment. 

What are PCBs? They are carcinogenic organic contaminants that were widely used for their insulating and fire-retardant capabilities, the authors noted.  

While the compounds were banned in the late 1970s by many countries, including the U.S. and Canada, many of these chemicals still exist in transformers, capacitors and other materials. 

A global phaseout: The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, signed in May 2001, called upon signatory parties to phase out the use of PCBs in equipment by 2025 and ensure their elimination entirely by 2028, according to the United Nations Environment Program. 

To date, 181 nations have become parties to the convention. The U.S. has yet to ratify the convention, stressing that it lacks “the authority to implement all of its provisions,” according to the State Department.  

Unaware and unprepared: Of the countries that are party to the convention,

Meanwhile, just 30 percent of signatory nations are on track to meet the 2028 goals set in the Stockholm Convention, the authors found. 

Worldwide wake-up call: “Global mismanagement and inequities make elimination of these persistent chemicals unlikely,” co-author Veena Singla, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. 

“This analysis is an international wake-up call to limit the production of hazardous chemicals, like PCBs,” Singla added. “We just can’t clean up the mess that they create.” 

To read the full story, please click here

New boost for wind, solar on federal land 

The Biden administration is slashing its rental fees for solar and wind projects on public land.

The move comes six weeks after it raised rates for fossil fuels — reflecting a shift in favor of renewable power, our colleague Rachel Frazin reported. 

Cost savings: The rate reforms that could save developers an average of 50 percent on new projects, the Department of Interior announced on Wednesday.  

The department also promised to roll out a single, standardized fee per-megawatt for land-based wind and solar projects. 

That would replace the current system, in which wind and solar producers can pay anywhere from about $2,800 to $4,300 per megawatt they produce, according to the Department.  

A role for public lands:“Clean energy projects on public lands have an important role to play in reducing our nation’s greenhouse gas emissions and lowering costs for families,” said Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland said in a statement. 

Meeting an ambitious goal:The Interior Department is trying to meet a mandate to turn on 25 GW of  renewable power by 2025 — enough to power about 4.75 million homes, according to Reuters. 

Bolstering the grid:The announcement comes as regional utilities continue to face rising temperatures with short supplies of power, a result of the lack of preparation for how climate change is straining electric grids in new ways, CNN reported. 

Already obsolete:“The reality is the electricity system is old and a lot of the infrastructure was built before we started thinking about climate change,” Romany Webb of Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law told CNN. 

Current rosy estimates of national readiness are based on historic averages — not the new reality of soaring national temperatures, Webb said.  

EPA lacking funds as responsibilities mount 

Cheaper leases for wind and solar help foster new clean energy, but it’s enforcement by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that helps clean up the mess from polluting sources.  

Struggles at EPA:The agency is struggling to do its job in the face of chronic underfunding by Congress and staff levels as low as during the austere 1980s, according to The Washington Post. 

“Our workload has more than doubled,” Michal Freedhoff, head of the 200-person Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention told The Post. “Our budget situation is such that we’re at real risk of years-long delays.” 

Budget denied: Congress has approved just one-fifth of the $2 billion in additional funds for the agency that Biden requested, according to House documents. 

That increase wasn’t enough to cover inflation, the Post reported. 

Paring back enforcement:Due to fiscal constraints, the agency had to suspend monitoring for ammonia and sulfur pollution at two dozen sites, according to the EPA. 

The loss of those monitoring stations “means you’re flying blind,” Eric Schaeffer, former head of the EPA’s Office of Civil Enforcement, told the Post. 

EPA responsibilities are about to increase:The agency is on the cusp of passing sweeping new regulations for the monitoring, capture and disposal of the potent climate pollutant methane — by far the largest component of natural gas, The Wall Street Journal reported.

That’s in keeping with Biden’s executive order last year mandating an all-of-government response to the climate crisis. 

Dividing big oil firms from small ones:Big ones like oilfield services company Schlumberger are broadly in favor of methane curbs — not least because it offers them a chance to sell a new generation of state-of-the-art leak-preventing technology in the oilfields, the Journal reported.  

It also gives them a competitive advantage over smaller firms, and the ability to please investors by branding their operations as lower emissions. 

Small producers are pushing back:They argue that new methane regulations will price them out of business, according to the Journal. 

“While the citizens of these rural parts of the country are certainly concerned with the ‘climate and health impacts of pollution’ … they are also concerned with their livelihood and putting food on the table,” the Independent Petroleum Association of America stated in a letter to the EPA. 

And if the methane rule passes?Expect immediate lawsuits against the EPA from Republican state attorney generals like Texas’s Ken Paxton or West Virginia’s Patrick Morrisey. 

Reducing air pollutant could help global food supply 

Minimizing emissions of a common air pollutant could significantly improve crop yields and create a more secure global food supply, a new study has found.  

Nitrogen oxides — gases found in car exhaust and industrial emissions — pose a significant threat to global crop yields, according to a report in Science Advances, published on Wednesday.  

The power of satellites: These findings, uncovered through satellite imagery, could have significant implications for boosting agricultural output and determining climate change mitigation costs, the authors explained. 

“Since we can also measure crop production from space, this opened up the chance to rapidly improve our knowledge of how these gases affect agriculture in different regions,” study lead author David Lobell, of Stanford University’s Center on Food Security and the Environment, said in a statement.   

Crops from space: Past research into the impact of nitrogen oxides on agricultural productivity has been limited by a lack of overlap between air monitoring stations and farmlands, as well as the confounding effect of other pollutants, the authors explained.  

To minimize these obstacles, Lobell and his colleagues looked at both satellite measurements of crop greenness and levels of nitrogen dioxide — a good indicator for total nitrogen oxides — for 2018-2020.  

China, Europe, India could benefit: Based on their observations, the researchers estimated that reducing nitrogen oxide emissions by about half would improve yields by about 25 percent for winter crops and 15 percent for summer crops in China.  

Doing so would improve yields by 10 percent for both winter and summer crops in Western Europe, as well as 6 percent for winter crops and 8 percent for summer crops in India, according to the study.  

North America generally demonstrated the lowest nitrogen oxide exposures, the authors found.  

To read the full story, please click here.  

US IS CHIEF CLIMATE LAGGARD OF WEALTHY SET  

Overall, the U.S. trails far behind the rest of the wealthier countries on climate mitigation and adaptation.  

Its climate performance ranking ranked almost last among Western democracies over the past decade, our colleague Zack Budryk reported for The Hill. 

Judged purely on climate metrics, the country fell from 15th to 101st over the course of the Trump presidency, The New York Times reported. 

Roster of failure:That’s based on a new report from Yale and Columbia, which found that the news was even grimmer worldwide: Denmark and Britain were the only wealthy countries on track to meet their net-zero by 2050 goals. 

Only Canada — home to the enormous and highly-polluting Alberta tar sands industry — ranked worse than the U.S., the report found. 

Water Wednesday 

San Diego’s pricey fix for a megadrought, Iraq’s dry spells lead to epic sandstorms and the surprising quirk that led to one watery resident’s electric evolution. 

San Diego saves water supply, at a cost 

  • As drought continues to dry up the Golden State, San Diego, whose water is among the most expensive in the U.S., “has largely shielded itself from supply-related woes” by boosting conservation and investing in the Western hemisphere’s largest desalination plant, NBC7 San Diego reported. 

Iraq drought crisis escalates amid sandstorms 

Small mutation led to big opportunities for electric eels 

  • A small mutation in electric eels’ sodium channels — proteins through which charged particles cross cell membranes to help contract muscles — has enabled the evolution of powerful electric shocks in these animals, according to a new study in Science Advances.  

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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