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Today is Thursday.  Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. Subscribe here:

The Tokyo Olympics staff has been touting sustainability initiatives by resurrecting recycled smartphones as medals and using construction waste for the Olympic torch. 

But plenty of waste remains: 13,000 brand new air conditioners may be headed for the trash once the games are over, Tokyo Shimbun reported (Japanese language). Because it is difficult to maintain their performance during storage, the equipment may instead head straight for disposal, the piece said. 

These findings surfaced after reports that 4,000 of the 10,000 meals prepared for staff and volunteers at the opening ceremony were thrown away.

Both the International Olympic Committee and the Japanese Olympic Committee “have spoken a lot about reducing emissions, but what about waste?” tweeted New York Times reporter Hiroko Tabuchi, citing the Tokyo Shimbun piece.

Today, we’ll take a concrete look at an attempt to track costs of such emissions by evaluating the number of people they kill. We’ll also revisit the bipartisan infrastructure bill — now under discussion in the Senate — that aims, in part, to steer the country toward reducing its carbon footprint, lowering the number of deaths.

For Equilibrium, we are Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Please send tips or comments to Saul at or Sharon at Follow us on Twitter: @saul_elbein and @sharonudasin

Let’s get to it.


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A new study lets us calculate carbon costs in deaths, not just dollars

The U.S. is undercounting the cost of additional deaths caused by climate change, according to a new study — whose quantitative approach of linking carbon release with deaths could prompt governments to do more to reduce emissions. 

Step one: The study builds on the idea of a “social cost of carbon,” which combines the market cost of carbon dioxide with “non-market” costs — including rising sea levels and fatalities from higher global temperatures.

On Thursday, Columbia University Ph.D. candidate Daniel Bressler offered an additional calculation for businesses and policymakers: a “mortality cost of carbon,” which allows them to calculate the deaths caused by every excess ton of carbon dioxide emitted.

Which is? It depends. Climate change is not linear. Every fraction of a degree of warming, or ton of greenhouse gases emitted, inflicts more damage than the one before.

If the world moves aggressively to decarbonize by 2050, Bressler’s revised social cost of carbon would be $158 per ton.

But in the current world, which offers many prospects for meaningful action but little concrete progress, he estimates the price is far higher: $258 per ton. 

What about deaths? That’s what makes Bressler’s model unique. In 2017, the National Academy of Sciences requested that scientists begin pulling apart the social cost of carbon.

That number can be contentious, because it requires not only assumptions about the future impact of climate disasters — and the role of additional emissions in causing them — but also requires economists to put a dollar value on those estimates.

That is less a scientific discussion than an “ethical one,” Bressler told Equilibrium. “How do you measure the future versus today?”

Instead, he said, it increases transparency to be able to say, “Here’s what’s being projected: excess deaths” per additional ton of carbon emitted.

“Then you monetize after the fact,” Bressler added.

Based on Bressler’s model, every million tons of carbon would lead — in a scenario in which emissions continue unabated — to a total of 226 excess deaths over the next 80 years.

Can you put that in household terms? Sure. The lifetime emissions of every 3.5 Americans — about the size of the average family — would kill one additional person worldwide over the next 80 years.

Still, Bressler emphasized, this is more a metric of how carbon-intensive existing U.S. infrastructure and lifestyles are rather than a result of individual choice. 

In far-poorer Nigeria, by comparison, Bressler found that it would take the emissions of nearly 150 people to reach one additional death, or almost 13 people emitting at the global average. 

This last point adds grim emphasis to India’s demand to the world’s wealthy countries that they cut per-capita emissions down to the global average, as we reported yesterday.

How does this compare to other carbon prices? Bressler’s business as usual number is about five times both the current trading price for carbon on the EU Emission Trading System — around $53 per ton — and the social cost of carbon as used by the Obama administration, which was around $50.

The Biden administration published a draft document in February that suggests it will follow the Obama numbers, John Schwartz reported for The New York Times on Thursday.

The Trump administration cut the cost to $1 per ton, based on math that emphasized short-term impacts to the United States, Lisa Friedman reported for the Times in 2020.

What do we do with those numbers? They can be used by business as well as governments, particularly given the heightened interest in environment, social and governance metrics, Bressler notes. About 23 percent of corporations evaluated by McKinsey Insights use some sort of internal carbon metric to guide their actions, according to McKinsey

What does this mean? Large institutions from Walmart to the Department of Defense can say, if “we reduce emissions by 1 million metric tons, that saves 226 lives over the next 80 years,” Bressler said.


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Senate begins debate on infrastructure, hits roadblock on transportation

The Senate voted Wednesday night to begin work on the contentious bipartisan infrastructure deal — ending weeks of squabbling and setting the stage for significant improvements in the clean energy sector. 

The vote came about a month after President BidenJoe BidenBriahna Joy Gray: White House thinks extending student loan pause is a ‘bad look' Biden to meet with 11 Democratic lawmakers on DACA: report Former New York state Senate candidate charged in riot MORE and the bipartisan negotiating team announced they had reached a deal on an eight-year, $1.2 trillion framework — which now involves $550 billion instead of  $579 billion in new spending, Jordain Carney reported for The Hill. The deal includes funding for roads, bridges, public transit, electric vehicles, water and broadband.

The legislation is expected to be the first in a two-part strategy to advance a larger measure.

That package would come in the form of a budget resolution that would enable Democrats to pass a more substantial second bill without Republican support, Carney reported. 

What has changed with regards to climate? Almost nothing. 

This latest iteration is largely in line with previous versions, allocating $73 billion toward power infrastructure, $7.5 billion toward electric buses and transit, $55 billion toward water infrastructure and $21 billion toward environmental cleanups, Rachel Frazin reported in another piece in The Hill

The bill would also put $7.5 billion toward an electric vehicle charging network, although it remained unclear whether an additional $7.5 billion in low-cost financing previously discussed would be included.

But there are some key differences: Investments in public transportation, Frazin reported, would drop from $49 billion to $39 billion, while electric bus funding would be split three ways: $2.5 billion for zero-emission buses, $2.5 billion for low-emission buses and $2.5 billion for ferries. 

The White House also specified that the $55 billion investment in water would go toward replacing lead service lines and addressing cancer-linked PFAS toxins, as well as toward infrastructure for Tribal Nations and disadvantaged communities.

“A far cry” from initial proposals, but still significant: Although the deal may be “a far cry from the eye-popping numbers” in Biden’s initial American Jobs Plan, America’s power grid would benefit from a much-needed boost, Josh Lederman reported for NBC News.

Maintaining resilience and curbing emissions, Lederman wrote, requires a grid that can handle disruptions and provide backup. High-voltage transmission lines, which would be included in the deal, would also facilitate the adoption of wind, solar and geothermal energy.

The bill would also create a federal Grid Deployment Authority, to cut red tape associated with permitting transmission lines — especially those that cross municipal and state boundaries, Lederman explained.

So energy could travel, what about people? President Biden has set an ambitious target when it comes to electrifying America’s vehicle sector. But to reach his goal — 40 percent by 2030 — half of all cars and SUVs sold would need to be electric, Juliet Eilperin and Dino Grandoni reported for The Washington Post. A voluntary pledge from automakers on this issue is still under negotiations, according to the Post. 

Meanwhile, as Lederman pointed out, the $7.5 billion allocated for charging is less than 5 percent of what Biden initially said was needed to reach his goal of a half-million stations. Without such stations, Lederman reported, “range anxiety” would continue to dissuade consumers from adopting electric vehicles. 

However they’re funded, the U.S. requires a huge influx of electric vehicles to meet its international emissions reduction commitments — especially as U.N. climate negotiations approach, Eilperin and Grandoni reported.

Since transportation is the “biggest driver of carbon emissions,” the country needs to stop selling gas- and diesel-powered cars entirely by 2035 and transition its auto fleet to renewable power, they stated.

 But automakers are demanding a major federal investment in charging stations, as well as billions more in tax credits and grants to revamp manufacturing plants.  

“It’s unclear if Congress will spend enough on charging stations to assuage automakers,” Eilperin and Grandoni wrote.

ROUND-UP: Technology Thursday

In which we explore places and people embracing innovation — as well as those who would rather avoid technology trends. 

New Jersey aims to double solar power over next five years

  • New Jersey, which already has more solar installations per square mile than any other state, is planning to add 3,750 megawatts of solar power to its existing 3,655 megawatts by 2026, Brian X. McCrone reported for NBC10.
  • The current supply breakdown is 143,363 small-scale installations, 185 large-scale installations that feed into the grid and seven community projects that link to local homeowners, according to NBC10. 
  • Another 770 megawatts are currently in the pipeline.
  • Progress on solar, according to Board of Public Utilities President Joseph Fiordaliso, is critical to Gov. Phil Murphy’s goal of achieving 100 percent clean energy by 2050 and ensures that the “industry will remain a vibrant part of our clean energy sector,” Fiordaliso said.

As work stacks up for wind turbine technicians, drones ease the load

  • Drone teams from Seoul-based company Nearthlab are taking over dangerous, time-consuming jobs from human technicians, according to Bloomberg Green.
  • A safety inspection that takes a human a full day of climbing can be done by a drone in 15 minutes, freeing up workers for jobs drones can’t do, and cutting time that turbines have to be idled.
  • With wind turbine technician now the fastest growing job in the U.S., this is more an aid than a threat to human workers, one plant manager said. “The workload is increasing. There’s going to be little shortage of jobs.”

Queen gets exemption from installing renewables on sprawling Scottish estates

  • While wind and solar technologies took off elsewhere, Queen Elizabeth II’s lawyers secretly lobbied Scottish ministers to exempt her private property in Scotland — a country where she is one of the largest landowners — from a major initiative to curb emissions, Rob Evans, Severin Carrel and David Pegg reported for The Guardian.
  • In Scotland, the Queen will be “the only person in the country not required to facilitate the construction of pipelines to heat buildings using renewable energy.”
  • The move contradicted the royal family’s public commitments to tackle climate change, with Princes William and Charles campaigning to reduce emissions, according to The Guardian.
  • “Crown consent is required by law if a bill impacts the private property or interests of the sovereign – and that is what happened in this case,” a Scottish government spokesperson said in a statement.

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


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