Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Hydrogen, helium shortages imperil weather balloons

Disruptions to global supplies of hydrogen and helium have forced the National Weather Service to cut back on weather balloon launches — potentially impacting forecasts and climate research, The New York Times reports.

To substitute for the decrease in balloons — made worse by the closure of a Cape Cod launch site last year — the agency has been relying on balloons on sites that are still open, as well as ground-based sensors, satellites and commercial planes, according to the newspaper. 

While the National Weather Service stressed that these changes would not affect forecasts and warnings, other meteorologists expressed concerns. Balloons are usually launched twice daily, 12 hours apart, and can make observations up to a height of about 20 miles, the Times reported. 

“We can’t go back and get that data,” Sandra Yuter, an expert on remote sensing of meteorological data at North Carolina State University, told the Times. “We’re going to have big gaps.” 

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 and view today’s full edition here.

Today we’ll explore a European Union decision to launch a fresh package of sanctions on Moscow, including a ban on Russian coal. Then we’ll look at a new study detailing illegal fishing and labor abuses on the high seas.

EU targets Russian coal in fresh sanctions package

The European Commission announced Tuesday it would impose a ban on imports of coal from Russia as part of its latest package of sanctions against Moscow. 

  • The ban, worth 4 billion euros annually ($4.4 billion), “will cut another important revenue source for Russia,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement.
  • As of 2020, the European Union relied on Russia for 19.3 percent of its coal, according to the European Commission’s Eurostat site

While earlier media reports on Tuesday suggested that the new package might include a ban on oil, the EU leader only stated that the commission is “working on additional sanctions, including on oil imports.” 

Increasing pressure: Noting that the four sanctions packages the EU has issued thus far “have hit hard and limited the Kremlin’s political and economic options,” von der Leyen stressed the need “to increase our pressure further.” 

“Today, we are proposing to take our sanctions a step further,” she said. “We will make them broader and sharper, so that they cut even deeper in the Russian economy.”

Transaction ban on banks: This fifth package of sanctions contains five other pillars in addition to the coal ban, including a full transaction ban on four key Russian banks.

Those banks, which von der Leyen said would now be “totally cut off from the markets,” represent 23 percent of the Russian banking sector’s market share.

Prohibition on vessels, with a few exceptions: A third prong in the package is a prohibition of Russian and Russian-operated vessels from EU ports, aside from in certain cases covering essentials such as agricultural and food products, humanitarian aid and energy, the EU leader’s statement said.


Another pillar in the package involves “targeted export bans” worth about 10 billion euros ($10.9 billion) in areas including quantum computing, advanced semiconductors and sensitive machinery. 

“With this, we will continue to degrade Russia’s technological base and industrial capacity,” von der Leyen said.

‘Cut the money stream’: The fifth embargo focuses on 5.5 billion euros ($6 billion) worth of specific new imports of products such as wood, cement, seafood and liquor. 

The aim of these sanctions, according to von der Leyen, is “to cut the money stream of Russia and its oligarchs.”

Eliminating financial support: The final prong of the sanctions package includes “very targeted measures,” such as an EU-wide ban on the participation of Russian firms in public procurement in member states, as well as the exclusion of all financial support to Russian public bodies, the commission president explained.

More on the horizon: Von der Leyen said the commission is working on additional sanctions, including a ban on oil imports, and considering other ideas presented by EU member states such as certain types of taxes. 

“To take a clear stand is not only crucial for us in Europe, but also for the rest of the world,” von der Leyen said. “A clear stand against the violation of the fundamental principles of the world order.” 

To read the full story, please click here

Labor abuse, illegal fishing rampant at sea: study

Coastal regions off West Africa, the mid-Atlantic near Portugal and Peru are the riskiest spots for illegal fishing and labor abuse, a new study has found.

The study, published in Nature Communications, found most illegal fishing and labor abuse issues stemming from vessels registered to China and other countries with poor anti-corruption oversight.

  • Big number: Researchers found that nearly half of more than 750 ports assessed worldwide are linked to either labor abuse or illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. 
  • ‘A safe haven’ for illegal fishing: That’s how the authors described the high seas, with millions of tons of such fish caught every year. The authors cited an online survey of experts that revealed the pervasive nature of these practices. 

Researchers found that vessels that engage is such activity also often have labor abuses on board, including forced labor, debt bondage and poor conditions. 

A first step: “Surveillance on the high seas is innately challenging, so these data provide a critical first step in helping stakeholders understand where to look deeper,” lead author Elizabeth Selig said in a statement.

How did the authors tackle this challenge? They first distributed an anonymous survey to experts at seafood companies, research institutions, human rights groups and governments to help quantify the degree of certainty as to whether a port was linked to either illegal fishing or labor abuses. 

They then used machine learning to combine survey responses with satellite-based vessel-tracking data, curated by Global Fishing Watch, an international NGO that provides open-source datasets relevant to ocean governance. 


Authors used human insight and machine learning to home in on the difficult-to-trace periods in which vessels exchange crews and catches — called “transshipment.”

From there, they identified points at which illegal behavior was occurring during swaps of people and equipment. 

What countries fared the worst? The authors found that fishing vessels incurred the most risk of labor abuse and illegal fishing off the coasts of West Africa, Peru and the Azores, an autonomous region of Portugal located in the mid-Atlantic. 

Vessels registered to countries with poor corruption controls, vessels owned by countries other than the “flag state” — or country to which a vessel is linked — and vessels registered to China presented a higher risk of participating in illegal activities, the study found. 

Pathways for risk mitigation: The authors highlighted some potential ways to mitigate risks through detection and response activities at port.

Researchers noted that one particularly important connection was the amount of time a vessel stays at port and the likelihood of labor abuse. 

They concluded that vessels with higher risks of labor abuse are at port for shorter periods, with port officials having less time to interfere with potential illegal activity. 

Refining port policies: “Ports are one of the few places to identify and respond to labor abuse,” Jessica Sparks, a fellow at the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions and associate director at the University of Nottingham Rights Lab, said in a statement.

“We need to ensure that policies and practices allow fishers to access trusted actors and services at port so they can safely report on their condition,” she added. 

To read the full story, please click here

Tech Tuesday

Solar cells that thrive at twilight, batteries that blaze and a fingerprint for forest heat death. 

Scientists design solar cells that works after sun sets

Dispose of rechargeable batteries properly — or risk flames

Research team identifies ‘fingerprint’ for forest heat, drought threshold

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

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