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Top 3 Articles from Pro's Sustainability Coverage

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Only July 1, POLITICO Pro expanded to cover the politics and policy of sustainability. From the circular economy, energy and carbon emissions, finance and ESG, supply chain management, governance and more — POLITICO Pro's newest coverage area will bring you the latest from the topic at the center of business and policy conversations. Here are three of the top sustainability articles from POLITICO Pro over the last week. 

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Top 3 Sustainability Articles

  1. EPA proposes update to its definition of 'affordable' water upgrades
  2. The 15 percentage points of emissions cuts that change everything
  3. Climate clash hits 2020 race as California burns

EPA proposes update to its definition of 'affordable' water upgrades

BY ANNIE SNIDER |09/15/2020 04:39 PM EDT

EPA is proposing new guidance that aims to get a more complete picture of how much a community can afford to pay to upgrade its aging and failing water and sewer systems.

Democratic and Republican municipal leaders alike have sought a more nuanced approach for more than two decades, arguing that the current standard for determining how quickly a community can make pollution control upgrades has led to water rates that are unaffordable for lower-income residents in their communities. But the change could slow the response to pollution problems that are expected to worsen as climate change brings more severe storms.

The backstory: The proposed guidance would broaden the economic factors that EPA can consider when it sets a schedule for how quickly a community must upgrade a water system that is dumping raw sewage into nearby rivers and streams or otherwise violating its Clean Water Act permit.

While EPA plays no direct role in the rates that drinking water and sewer authorities charge their customers, it can indirectly affect those rates when it sets the terms of consent decrees that mandate expensive upgrades to water systems that have frequent combined sewer overflows.

Under 1997 guidance, EPA was to look at only two factors when considering the utility’s ability to afford such upgrades, and thus how quickly to require they be implemented: the cost per household as a percentage of Median Household Income and the utility’s overall fiscal health.

But mayors and other local leaders say the reliance on Median Household Income was a blunt tool that missed the impact that expensive upgrades have on the lowest-income members of the community, especially in areas where low-income neighborhoods sit near high-income neighborhoods. Lawmakers from both parties have urged EPA to revise the approach, including in bipartisan legislation, H.R. 1497 (116), recently approved by the House Transportation Committee.

The new proposal: The new guidance would offer two alternate ways of assessing affordability, both of which put a special focus on the impact of cost increases on the lowest-income residents. One would still use the 1997 framework, but expand cost and poverty considerations. The other would use a dynamic financial and rate model to look at the impact of rate increases over time on utility customers.

The proposal, which has been in the works for years, comes as the Trump administration's EPA has sought to cast itself as focused on environmental justice.

“EPA is working to ensure that all Americans—regardless of their zip code—have clean water for drinking and recreation,” EPA Assistant Administrator for Water David Ross said in a statement. “With this action, the agency is supporting wastewater utilities to help them better serve disadvantaged communities that have financial challenges.”

The reaction: Organizations representing water utilities and municipal leaders welcomed the revamp, saying it is all the more important during the coronavirus pandemic, when utilities are facing additional economic challenges with many customers unable to pay their bills.

“This new affordability guidance provides greater transparency and additional tools to allow cities to work in conjunction with EPA to find solutions that protect public health in a more affordable manner,” U.S. Conference of Mayors Executive Director Tom Cochran said in a statement.

But environmental groups have eyed previous efforts to offer cities more time for upgrades warily, since that effectively allows pollution violations to occur for longer periods of time. Moreover, overflows from old combined sewer systems are expected to grow more frequent as climate change brings more of the intense rain storms that cause the systems’ tunnels to overflow into nearby creeks and streams.

What's next: The proposal will be open for public comment for 30 days after it runs in The Federal Register.


The 15 percentage points of emissions cuts that change everything


BRUSSELS — European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is set to ask EU countries this week to cut emissions so deeply and so fast in just a decade that it would be roughly the same as shutting down Germany.

That request, expected from the European Commission president during Wednesday’s State of the Union speech, will spark a years-long political brawl as governments and industries do their utmost to avoid the pain from boosting the bloc’s 2030 greenhouse gas emissions reduction target from 40 percent to “at least 55 percent.”


The current 40 percent target is meant to be reached through a mix of market measures and regulation, including the bloc’s carbon market and green energy goals.

But that won’t be enough to get to 55 percent — the difference comes to an extra 736 million tons of carbon each year, only a little less than Germany’s annual emissions.

That’s why Brussels is mulling a major overhaul of EU climate policy — reforming rules for the forestry and agriculture sectors and expanding the bloc’s Emissions Trading System to also cover transport and building emissions.


The Commission proposes a 55 percent cut to emissions by 2030, raising the target from the previous 40 percent. Cuts are based on 1990 levels and exclude land-use.

Carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-e) is used to compare emissions from various greenhouse gases on the basis of their global warming potential.

A POLITICO graphic.
Yearly projections are not available between 2018 and 2030. | POLITICO
“Bringing all this together — the nightmare just begins,” said one senior European Commission official.

That will pile pressure on economic sectors such as road transport, shipping and aviation where emissions are still rising. Coal-dependent and poorer economies will be asked to shoulder more of the burden.

“A climate neutral transition can only be accomplished with contributions from everyone,” said a draft of the Commission policy, which may change before it is released.

Those 15 percentage points will be felt in just about every aspect of life.

Under the draft, farmers will become carbon custodians, paid to store emissions in the soil. It foreshadows a ban on combustion-engine car production and increased emissions standards, transforming one of Europe’s largest industries. Within a few years, the growl of an engine will be an echo of the 20th century. Streets and pavements will be requisitioned to make room for hundreds of thousands of car charging stations.

Across Europe, letters will arrive offering incentives for landlords and homeowners to upgrade their boilers, insulation and windows. A massive renovation industry will emerge practically overnight — or so Brussels hopes.

The next decade will see Europe largely break its centuries-long dependence on coal. Industry body Eurelectric predicts that by 2030, 21 EU countries will be coal-free. That will be accompanied by a surge in renewables to mean that roughly 80 percent of EU electricity will be carbon-free by 2030.

But the final 20 percent will be harder. Gas generation is holding steady, providing support for wind and solar.

Eurelectric Secretary-General Kristian Ruby backed the raising of ambition but said other sectors must work harder. “We really need to see a massive effort to accelerate electrification in transport, in buildings and in industry, otherwise this is going to be very difficult.”

It’s not all costs. The draft argues that slashing fossil fuel use — 70 percent for coal, 30 percent for oil and 25 percent for gas — would save €110 billion every year in health-related air pollution.

Von der Leyen and her commissioners will argue that their target is feasible, based on an impact assessment to be released later this week. But EU officials and industry are gearing up for a long battle over where the cuts will come from.

Political calculations

Germany, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, will oversee the negotiations over the 2030 target this fall. Those talks will be dominated by old questions: how much will coal-dominated Central Europe be willing or able to do? And how much will their partner-rivals in the West and North help?

But the politics of 2020 is different from the EU’s past grinding progress on climate legislation. A huge injection of stimulus cash under the future EU budget means around €550 billion is earmarked for climate projects. A new €17.5 billion Just Transition Fund is meant to help regions buffer the socio-economic turbulence of dumping coal and other polluting industries.

The European Commission will ask every sector of the economy to address its carbon emissions in order to reach the 2030 goal.

Carbon dioxide equivalent is used to compare emissions from various greenhouse gases on the basis of their global warming potential.

A POLITICO graphic.
Figures are displayed as Mt of CO2-e. | POLITICO

Between 1990 and 2017, transport has seen the biggest rise in emissions, while power supply is taking care of the heavy lifting.

A POLITICO graphic.
Figures are displayed as Mt of CO2-e. | POLITICO
The higher 2030 target won’t be reached by simply boosting national goals. Instead, there’s going to be an effort to expand the bloc’s cap-and-trade carbon scheme to cover new sectors like road transport, shipping and buildings, increase green energy targets and tighten up emissions standards for cars.

“The hardest part of this will be reaching a political agreement to set out how each member country reduces its emissions linked to transport and mobility, the urban agenda … it has to be an agreement which is achievable, in line with each member state’s capacity,” Teresa Ribera, Spain’s deputy prime minister and minister in charge of environmental matters, told POLITICO.

Diplomats will start the hard talks over what emissions cuts they can back once Brussels publishes its calculations supporting higher climate efforts — expected later this week.

Berlin hopes to clinch an agreement over a possible new target at a meeting of EU environment ministers at the end of October. German Environment Minister Svenja Schulze, who’ll oversee the negotiations, wants to make sure the bloc adopts the higher goal by the end of the year, and can submit a new climate pledge under the Paris Agreement.

She’s got backing from EU members like Denmark, which have long pushed for a 55 percent goal as part of the EU’s global commitment to tackle climate change.

“If the EU does not deliver an enhanced target this year, it will be very difficult to persuade other big emitters to ramp up their level of ambition. Everybody is holding their breath and waiting for the EU to lead the way,” said Danish Energy and Climate Minister Dan Jørgensen.

At the same time, energy market shifts driven by falling renewable energy costs are changing domestic calculations over the economic impact of faster emissions cuts — including in coal-reliant Poland, which has long resisted EU efforts and didn’t adopt a 2050 climate neutrality timeline at home. Under a proposed climate plan, released earlier this month, Poland would speed up its coal phaseout and expand renewable energy sources.

There’s a sense that opinion is shifting.

Polish Climate Minister Michał Kurtyka said the pace of Poland’s planned green energy transition was much faster than what Germany — which started on its Energiewende green energy transformation in the 1990s — was doing. If Poland followed its neighbor’s example, “you would have the transition by 2100 to a climate-neutral economy,” he quipped.

“Poland is moving extremely fast,” Kurtyka said. But new plans to accelerate its transition from coal and boost electric car use will need €400 billion in investment. “We know how difficult it is already for the economy to gather all this,” he said.

If the past decade holds a lesson for policymakers it’s that carbon-cutting technology can dramatically outpace politics, once the tinder is alight. That has changed the minds of some more risk-averse and fiscally-minded politicians, allowing the possibility of greater support for the Commission’s leap.

“I think we’re seeing real movement. We’re seeing that all EU countries are getting on board,” said Ribera, adding: “We can certainly be more optimistic about slashing emissions now than we were a year ago.”


Climate clash hits 2020 race as California burns 



SACRAMENTO, Calif. — President Donald Trump and his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, on Monday offered a striking split screen on the role of climate change in raging wildfires on the West Coast, with each staking out dramatically different positions on what has caused the blazes that have consumed vast amounts of acreage in California in recent weeks.

In dueling events, Biden linked the blazes — as well as deadly heat waves and a recent string of hurricanes and disastrous flooding elsewhere — to climate change, while Trump dismissed the established science that shows global temperatures will continue to climb because of rising greenhouse gases from the use of fossil fuels.


The president, in California for a briefing on the fires, sparred with the state’s natural resources chief over his denial of the role that rising temperatures have played in the worsening fire season, with the secretary at one point responding to the president: “I don’t think the science agrees with you.”

While Biden and Trump’s divergent attitudes toward climate change were already well established, their comments on Monday only stood to underscore their differences on an issue that has put lives at stake.

The showdown came as historic wildfires have displaced tens of thousands of residents up and down the West Coast, tinged the sky a red-orange hue and created some of the world’s worst air quality in parts of California. At least 35 people are dead across California, Oregon and Washington, and more than 3 million acres of land have been scorched.

In remarks from Wilmington, Del., the former vice president pitched himself as the only choice to combat climate change shortly ahead of Trump’s first visit to view the damage in California from the fires that have been raging for weeks.

“If you give a climate arsonist four more years in the White House, why would anyone be surprised if we have more America ablaze?” Biden said. “If you give a climate denier four more years in the White House, why would anyone be surprised when more of America is underwater?”

Trump faced a more direct confrontation at his event here in California’s capital, from Gov. Gavin Newsom and Wade Crowfoot, the head of the state’s Natural Resources Agency.

“I think we want to work with you to really recognize the changing climate and what it means for our forests and actually work together with that science,” Crowfoot told the president at the wildfire briefing, which featured local and federal officials involved in combating the fires. Crowfoot emphasized to the president that “science is going to be key.”

While he applauded Trump’s focus on forest management as a method of controlling and fighting wildfires, Crowfoot warned Trump not to “ignore” the science of climate change, arguing that it would be misguided to “sort of put our heads in the sand and think it’s all about vegetation management,” a course of action he said would not ultimately protect Californians.

Trump, however, pushed back on Crowfoot’s assessment, telling the secretary that “it’ll start getting cooler, just watch.”

“I don’t think the science agrees with you,” Crowfoot responded, to which Trump countered: “I don’t think science knows, actually.”

After the briefing, Crawfoot fired back at the president on Twitter, posting a graph of California’s average temperature from June to September, with a trendline showing that figure steadily increasing over the last four decades.

“It actually won’t get cooler Mr. President. #ClimateChangeIsReal,” Crowfoot wrote.

Newsom, a Democrat with whom Trump has had a hot-and-cold relationship, also challenged the president on his views, even as he acknowledged that Trump was unlikely to change them.

“I’d be negligent, and this is not — we’ve known each other too long and as you suggest, the working relationship, I value,” he told the president. “We obviously feel very strongly that the hots are getting hotter, the dries are getting drier.”

“Something’s happened to the plumbing of the world and we come from a perspective, humbly, where we submit the science is in and observed evidence is self-evident, that climate change is real, and that is exacerbating this,” he continued, urging Trump to “please respect the difference of opinion out here with respect to this fundamental issue of climate change.”

“Absolutely,” the president responded.

Climate change is playing a role in the severity of the fires, which are expected to increase in frequency in future years. The U.S. endured its fourth-hottest summer ever recorded amid an abnormally dry season, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That helped create the volatile conditions on the heels of the nation’s sixth-warmest winter, as lightning strikes ignited West Coast blazes even before official wildfire season began.

“Donald Trump’s climate denial may not have caused these fires and record floods and record hurricanes, but if he gets a second term these hellish events will continue to become more common, more devastating and more deadly,” Biden said on Monday.

Biden laid out the consequences of climate change along the nation’s coasts and in suburbs, pointing to the health concerns stemming from wildfires and other natural disasters that disproportionately affect communities of color, as well as the massive costs to the economy and the national security threats posed by sea-level rise.

“With every bout of nature’s fury, caused by our own inaction on climate change, more Americans see and feel the devastation, whether they’re in big cities, small towns, on coastlines or farm lands,” Biden said. “It’s happening everywhere and it’s happening now, and it affects us all.”

Biden also took aim at Trump’s central campaign theme on law and order, using the same phrasing he has employed when criticizing Trump’s response to the protests that swept across the country to attack him on his lack of action on climate change.

“It’s clear that we’re not safe in Donald Trump’s America,” Biden said. “This is Donald Trump’s America. He’s in charge.”

Trump has also warned that immigration is threatening U.S. suburbs, an assertion that Biden called “ridiculous” in his remarks.

“You know what is actually threatening our suburbs?” he said “Wildfires are burning the suburbs of the West. Floods are wiping out suburban neighbors in the Midwest. Hurricanes are imperiling suburban life along our coast. If we have four more years of Trump’s climate denial, how many suburbs will be burned by wildfires? How many suburban neighborhoods will be flooded out? How many suburbs will have been blown away by superstorms?”

Biden positioned Trump’s policies and actions as “backward-looking politics” that will stand to harm the environment, make communities less healthy and hold back economic progress.

“It’s a mindset that doesn’t have any faith in the capacity of the American people to compete, to innovate and to win,” Biden said, pointing instead to his own climate plan, which calls for making buildings more energy-efficient, boosting clean-energy jobs and expanding electric transportation.

“We have to act as a nation,” Biden said. “It shouldn’t be so bad that millions of Americans live in the shadow of an orange sky and are left asking, ‘Is Doomsday here?’”

Trump met with local and federal personnel and attended the wildfire briefing during a trip to McClellan Park near Sacramento, after facing criticism that he has ignored the Western wildfires for weeks.

He forcefully pushed back on that criticism prior to the briefing, appearing annoyed when asked what he says to critics who said he was too slow to respond, calling it a “nasty question.”

“I said it immediately, let me just tell you,’’ Trump said. “I got a call from the governor immediately when the fires began, I called him, and on that call I declared it an emergency,’’ he told reporters on the tarmac upon landing in Sacramento. “That was immediate. So don’t tell me about not doing it, because that was immediate. … That included FEMA coming here, and everything else, so that’s a nasty question.”

Trump has previously denied and downplayed the existence of climate change, and recently reprised attacks on California, accusing the state of causing the wildfires by not taking care of its forests. While forest management plays a role — decades of stomping out flames has allowed fuel to build up, creating kindling — scientists say the drier, hotter conditions and shifting precipitation patterns brought by climate change are a primary factor for recent wildfires.

At campaign rallies over the weekend in Nevada, Trump criticized California’s fire management practices and attacked what he called the state’s “extreme agenda.”

“Please remember the words, very simple: forest management,” he said of the wildfires. Trump has previously accused the state of failing to “clean” or rake its forests.

Newsom has meanwhile emphasized that the fires are the direct result of climate change and pledged to “fast-track” the state’s climate policies in response to the fires.

Asked on Monday specifically whether climate change had a role in the current wildfires, as Newsom has repeatedly argued, Trump disagreed.

“This is more of a management situation,’’ he said. “You look at other countries, Austria, Finland, they’re forest nations and they don’t have problems. They manage their forest and they’ve been doing it brilliantly for many years and it should happen here. The state has to really do that, that includes the state of Washington and Oregon.”

Trump repeatedly cited “explosive trees,’’ as a problem in California, “meaning they catch fire much easier,’’ and can be the start of huge wildfires even with a dropped cigarette.

He downplayed disagreements with Newsom on climate change.

“He does agree with forest management. When I started talking about it years ago, nobody agreed with me,’’ Trump said, adding that “you can do it beautifully.’’

Miles Taylor, the chief of staff to former Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, has said Trump wanted to shut off emergency relief for California amid the state’s 2019 wildfires because it was a blue state.

Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, is also expected to travel to her home state of California on Monday. She will meet with emergency service personnel on Tuesday for an assessment of the wildfires, according to the Biden campaign.


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