Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Altria — River Thames comes back to life

Today is Thursday. Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. Subscribe here: digital-stage.thehill.com/newsletter-signup

London’s notoriously toxic tributary — first plagued by Industrial Revolution runoffs and human waste during the “Great Stink” of 1858 — is now home to hundreds of wildlife species, such as sharks, seals and sea horses, The Washington Post reported.  

Parts of the River Thames had been declared “biologically dead” just 60 years ago, but the latest State of the Thames report, published by the Zoological Society of London, has determined that cleanup efforts over recent decades have decreased levels of chemicals like phosphorus and protected salt marshes for birds and fish, according to the Post. 

These efforts have left the river “home to myriad wildlife as diverse as London itself,” the Society wrote, according to the Post. 

Although the Thames may no longer be contaminated with toxic waste, it does have one of the highest concentrations of microplastics in the world — higher than other urban waterways like the Chicago River and the Danube, British study last year found, according to the Post. 

Today we’ll look at a surprise show of cooperation between the U.S. and China at the United Nations Climate Conference (COP26). Then we’ll look at a report on an underappreciated opportunity to slash transportation emissions: getting ride-share drivers into electric cars.

For Equilibrium, we are Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Please send tips or comments to Saul at selbein@digital-stage.thehill.com or Sharon at sudasin@digital-stage.thehill.com. Follow us on Twitter: @saul_elbein and @sharonudasin

Let’s get to it.


US, China issue ‘surprise’ climate agreement

The U.S. and China released an unexpected joint statement expressing the need to strengthen climate action this decade, at COP26 on Wednesday.

While the terms of the deal itself weren’t groundbreaking, the sheer fact that there was a deal at all came as a “surprise,” as the two countries remain at odds on so many issues, according to The New York Times.

First words: “The unveiling of a joint agreement on cooperation to accelerate climate actions and tackle global warming by the climate envoys of China and the U.S. on Wednesday has come as a pleasant and welcome surprise to many,” an editorial in China Daily — an English-language daily owned by the Chinese Communist Party — stated. 

So what was in the deal? The two countries plan to collaborate on regulating emissions, electrifying industry and deploying technologies that capture emissions from burning fossil fuels  — although that last item is expensive, unproven and risks prolonging fossil fuel use. 

The countries also agreed to collaborate on curbing releases of methane, a byproduct of oil, gas and agricultural production that warms the planet with an intensity dozens of times greater than carbon dioxide.

The partners also emphasized their support for bringing $100 billion in climate finance to developing countries annually through 2025. They were referring to an international agreement set in 2009, which aimed to mobilize that sum annually by 2020, through that same end date. 

Separate, but together: Each country’s climate envoy — John Kerry and Xie Zhenhua — announced the agreement at their respective press conferences, although a copy of the deal was later released by the State Department.  

The deal was the product of months of meetings between Xie and Kerry, who also held almost-daily discussions at the summit, officials told The Times. The leaders have known each other for more than 20 years and both came out of retirement to assume their country’s top climate roles.




Altria is working to create a more sustainable future — aligned with the expectations of society and our stakeholders. Learn about the goals we’ve set and the progress we’re making at Altria.com.


The deal comes amid escalating tensions, which have been on display at COP26, where the U.S. has repeatedly slammed Chinese climate commitments and criticized Chinese President Xi Jinping’s decision not to attend.

Ties have been badly strained between Washington and Beijing over trade, Taiwan and human rights — particularly over China’s treatment of Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang province, the Times reported.

Meanwhile, U.S. military planners are currently testing Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system in Guam, due to concern about potential Chinese attacks, according to The Wall Street Journal. 

And at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum on Thursday, Xi warned against allowing tensions in the Asia-Pacific region to take on “the confrontation and division of the Cold War era” — following a recent announcement of a U.S.-British-Australian security alliance in the region, the Associated Press reported.

Setting the tone for final days of COP26: Regardless of existing tensions, Li Shuo, a global policy adviser for Greenpeace China, told the South China Morning Post that the deal would set the tone for the Glasgow summit’s final negotiations.

“The joint statement creates a cooperative spirit between the world’s two largest emitters. It prevents the worst – a US-China decoupling on climate action,” he told the Post, a Hong Kong-based English-language newspaper owned by mainland China-based Alibaba Group.

The China Daily editorial also indicated that the deal could “inspire constructive interactions between the two sides, and facilitate more sensible, responsible actions, which in itself will be a boost to the global climate response.”

Last words: “It is no secret that there has been a protracted, though fruitless, blame game going on between Beijing and Washington,” the China Daily editorial stated. “Hopefully, the joint will being demonstrated by China and the US can be translated into practical actions that will start to remedy this.”

Barriers hinder push to electrify ride-shares

Electrifying the ride-share fleet of carriers like Uber and Lyft would lead to significant reductions  in the amount of carbon emitted by the U.S. transportation sector — but requisite financial and infrastructure incentives to make that happen remain largely unavailable, a new report from the World Resources Institute and Uber has found.

However, by focusing on the obstacles that keep disproportionately low-income ride-share drivers from being able to buy electric cars, U.S. states, utilities and municipalities can both improve local air quality and take a big bite out of carbon emissions, the report found.

Why electrify the ride-share fleet? Because it would be more effective, in terms of dollars spent for emissions cut, than almost anything else, the report found.

That’s because the miles per-day accrued by ride-share drivers is about three times greater than those of private car owners — who are collectively responsible for 58 percent of US transportation emissions — and they overwhelmingly do it in internal combustion engine cars, the report found.

But because of entrenched barriers to adoption, U.S. and Canadian ride-share drivers are far less likely to drive electric vehicles, compared to private car owners.


Barrier #1: Up-front cost. Electric vehicles are expensive — both up-front and in terms of the infrastructure to charge them — and ride-share drivers are disproportionately lower income, the report found.

Like ride-share drivers themselves, their cars fall in the gap between private and commercially-owned: they tend to get missed by measures aimed at light-commercial vehicles — like delivery vans — and publicly owned ones, the report found.

Barrier #2: Poorly targeted subsidies and financing: Over time, the higher up-front cost of an electric vehicle is balanced by lower operating costs — but taking advantage of that requires having access to the cash, subsidies or loans to buy it, the report notes.

Financing tends to be unavailable to lower-income people, while electric vehicle subsidies tend to go to people who would have bought an electric vehicle anyway, the report found.

Barrier #3: Nowhere to cheaply charge: Ride-share drivers tend to live in rentals or multifamily apartment complexes, which are far less likely to have — or to allow tenants to install — charging stations. 

This forces many of the 14 percent of electric vehicle drivers who are lower-income to charge their cars at comparatively more expensive public charging stations, the report found. 

A pilot project Uber ran in London found this was the key obstacle to electric vehicle adoption, the report noted.

Barrier #4: Lack of information: The decision to buy a new car is often made suddenly after an existing car unexpectedly fails, the report found — and when that moment comes, if they’re not already thinking about electric vehicles, they won’t buy one.

But a confusing hodgepodge of information on everything from the availability of subsidies and charging stations to accurate lifetime costs for electric vehicles make it harder for ride-share drivers to imagine a switch.

How to solve those problems: WRI’s specific policy suggestions are available here, but generally they involve these key points:

  • Fostering cooperation among ride-hailing services, local governments and power utilities to better target subsidies and incentives to rideshare drivers 
  • Placing a lot more charging stations where they are most needed 
  • Reworking electricity pricing schemes to make charging more affordable 
  • Acquainting drivers with electric vehicles — and allowing drivers to play around with them — long before their existing cars die

Takeaway: Cutting emissions in the rideshare sector is less a matter of increasing incentives than it is a matter of removing barriers that make it harder for lower-income people to get — or even imagine — themselves in an electric vehicle, the report finds. 




Altria is working to create a more sustainable future — aligned with the expectations of society and our stakeholders. Learn about the goals we’ve set and the progress we’re making at Altria.com.


Thorny Thursday

Three tough questions or issues, to prick your curiosity. 

Judge approves $626 million settlement for Flint water contamination victims

  • A Michigan judge approved a $626 million settlement for thousands of plaintiffs in Flint, Mich., whose water was contaminated with lead — with most of that money allocated to children.
  • Most of the settlement will be paid out by the state of Michigan, with some of the funds also coming from the city of Flint, McLaren hospital group and a company called Rowe Professional Services. 
  • The contamination, which occurred from April 2014-October 2015, exposed about 99,000 residents to lead, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Short-term lead poisoning has been linked to kidney and brain damage, while longer-term exposure can increase the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney disease and fertility issues. 

Musk unloads Tesla stock after calling attention to ‘tax avoidance’ risk

  • On Tuesday and Wednesday, Elon Musk sold about $5 billion in Tesla stock — just days after a Twitter poll where a majority of respondents told him to sell 10 percent of his stock, The Wall Street Journal reported. 
  • Musk said he did this to call attention to “unrealized capital gains” — the untaxed increase in net-worth that comes with gains in stock value— as “a means of tax avoidance.”
  • “Whether or not the world’s wealthiest man pays any taxes at all shouldn’t depend on the results of a Twitter poll,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), chair of the Senate Finance Committee and a proponent of taxing unrealized capital gains.

Climate ‘loss and damage’ — or ‘liability and reparations?’

  • Rich and poor countries are facing off at COP26 over the fraught question of “loss and damages,” or who will pay to help poor countries adapt to climate change that rich countries largely caused, The New York Times reported.
  • “The term ‘loss and damage’ is a euphemism for terms we’re not allowed to use, which are ‘liability and compensation,’” Bangladeshi botanist and climate activist Dr. Saleemul Huq told the Times. “‘Reparations’ is even worse.”
  • Any such agreement would have to protect polluting countries from legal liability, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry said.
  • But Scotland — early home of the coal-burning Industrial Revolution — has committed $2.8 million as “an act of reparation” and is calling upon other countries to make similar pledges, according to the Times. 


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


Tags Elon Musk John Kerry Ron Wyden

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