Poland is experiencing a border crisis that has resulted in the construction of a 116 mile long border wall along the Eastern Border with Belarus, sparking passionate pushback from the environmental communities and a possible lawsuit to boot. It’s about time we start talking more about the negative role border walls play on environmental protection, and with that, climate protection given the role natural ecosystems play in carbon sequestration.
The crisis in Poland was spawned by international sanctions put on Belarus due to multiple human right violations from their leader Alexander Lukashenko. If you don’t know this bachagaloop, just imagine if the MyPillow Guy Mike Lindell became the leader of an Easter European country. You’d have Lukashenko. In response to the sanctions, he ushered in tens of thousands of migrants from the Middle East promising them safe passage to Europe – primarily via Poland and Ukraine – as a way to strike back against the EU.
This resulted in Poland declaring an emergency last September, prompting shutdowns of many local businesses in border towns and a resulting economic downturn, and now, the border wall to try and stop the migrant flood.
One of the problems though is that this border wall will run right through the Bialowieza Forest, a massive ecosystem and wildlife corridor shared between Poland, Belarus and Ukraine. It is home to 60 mammalian species, 250 bird species, and 16,000 fungi and invertebrates. The species at the top of that ecosystem – apex predators such as wolves, foxes, and lynx – as well as key engineer species such as beavers and ungulate species such as red deer all depend on migration paths to maintain. Those paths cross country borders and if cut off, they face challenges such as food security and forced inbreeding leading to increased vulnerability to disease and bacteria.
Construction of these border walls also often bring invasive weed species such as goldenrod weeds that can completely disrupt vegetation. If you think this challenge is unique to the Poland-Belarus border, think again.
DOCUMENTED ENVIRONMENTAL DAMAGE OF THE US-MEXICO BORDER WALL
Roughly 1/3 of the US/Mexico border has a pedestrian or vehicle fence. The Donald Trump wing of the Conservative party wants to build out the other 2/3. The migrant surge over the last year is leading more and more moderates to asking for the same.
However, this brings with it a lot of known environmental damage, impacting both wild species and humans in the form of exacerbating flood conditions along the Rio Grande.
There are an estimated 134 mammal, 178 reptile, and 57 amphibian species living within 30 miles of the border, of which 50 are critically threatened. The Mexican Gray Wolf is a great example.
Wolves, along with jaguars who have also been adversely impacted by these walls, typically need a range of 20 to 50 square miles to survive. This range size is only increasing as more and more development leads to less concentrations of prey species. If you have any doubt about the positive environmental impact of these apex predators, check out the 1st episode of our series last year The American War on Wolves.
Cutting off these migratory paths also leads to inbreeding and lack of genetic diversity, which is not unique to these apex predators. Fences can also restrict animal’s access to water sources, which is a problem in the drought-prone area of the US-Mexico border. Adapting to climate change is also inhibited if they can’t move to areas with better conditions.
We’ve also seen impacts on flood conditions. Flash floods in Nogales and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona have caused millions of dollars in damage and two deaths because of floodwaters that built up along the fence.
Border walls are just overall problematic. They ultimately do very little to slow down actual migration – people find other ways around them, cut through them, etc.. – while directly harming the animal and human communities that live nearby due to the environmental degradation they cause.
This is not to say we should do nothing about migration or just have open borders everywhere in the name of environmental protection. No, we need rules and protocols for migration in order to protect both the migrants & the residents of the countries they migrate into.
Walls and fences just don’t need to be part of those protocols. There is really no evidence that they do much good. We should manage migration issues with improved international diplomacy, increased resources for processing applications, improved systems for humanely deporting illegal migrants when absolutely necessary, clearer standards for operation, and so forth. For example, if our migrant court system was not so under-resourced that many have to wait months and even years to be properly evaluated, that would go a long way in solving this problem.
And it’s a problem that will only worsen in the years ahead. Due primarily to climate change induced displacement, by 2040 we may have as many as 100 million migrants across the world, compared to 15 to 30 million today. An over reliance on border walls is counterproductive to this issue, as it worsens environmental conditions which further aggravates global warming which then leads to even more migration.
This is not rocket science if we can remove the politics and emotions from playing such critical roles in these decisions.
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MICHIGAN GREEN LIGHTS ELECTRIC ROADWAYS – A CRITICAL PART OF SUSTAINABLE FUTURE OR UNNECESSARY TECH?
The state of Michigan in collaboration with Ford officially announced the first of it’s kind electric roadway test to be built for a 1-mile stretch in a yet to be named location, likely somewhere in Detroit. The road will be built by Israeli electric roadway company Electreon Wireless. No real surprise Michigan wants to be a pioneer here given their historic standing as the automotive capital of the US.
The technology and potential prospect of never needing charging stations again for electric vehicles is interesting and fascinating, but the larger question looms on whether the infrastructure costs this would take would be worth it in the end?
In terms of how the tech works…..there are a few different solutions out there but almost all the viable ones utilize an inductive process via electromagnetic fields to transfer power the same way wireless phone charging works. In the case of Electreon, they would lay copper wires under the asphalt and each vehicle would be equipped with a custom receiver that picks up the charge as it moves along the wired road.
The copper wires would be pulling electricity from the same grid as other above ground charging stations. There is a small pocket of “solar roadway” stalwarts that believe electric roads can be lined with solar panels that charge themselves, but the prospects of those have been all but debunked, mostly because even if they worked as planned and were resilient to wear and tear (highly unlikely) they would only generate 3-3.5 megawatt hours per day per mile of roadway, whereas the average EV vehicle today needs 30 kilowatt hours per 100 miles, so a solar road would have to have very limited EV traffic per day to actually be viable.
Hence, the underground transmitters pulling electricity from the grid are currently the only plausible form of electric roads.
From a cost standpoint, Electreon is getting $1.9M from the State Department of Michigan to deploy this test, although they admit this may not fully fund the pilot. Most experts believe that rebuilding our roads to electrify them would cost ~$1M per mile. At 4 million miles of road in the US, this is $4 trillion just for build out, let alone potential added costs for connecting to the grid in certain locations and maintenance. So the question becomes…is it worth it?
THE CASE FOR AND AGAINST ELECTRIC ROADS
Everyone agrees that converting transportation to electricity is a critical part of hitting our emissions targets and getting to net-zero by 2050. Yes, today most of that electricity comes from fossil fuels, but we have to believe that will continue to change. The days of diesel engine road vehicles need to end.
The question surrounding electric roads then rests on whether or not one thinks they are a critical step in getting us there.
Those in favor site the following:
- Electric roads will allow for smaller, cheaper EV batteries since those batteries will not need to store as much power as they do in between charging station visits if they have a source of more or less constant power coming from the roads themselves
- Electric roads will lead to less downtime for fleet vehicles – buses, taxis, delivery – without the need to stop and charge. Making fleets more efficient and thus less expensive
- Electric roads will aid in the shift to fully autonomous vehicles that won’t have drivers to get out and plug them into a charging block
Those in the more skeptical camp look at the enormous price tag on this infrastructure first and foremost as something difficult to get approval on. The Biden administration included $7.5B in the infrastructure bill last year for electric charging stations, but that’s a far cry from $4 trillion for electric roads. In addition, this camp says:
- The enormous global investment in battery efficiency will lead us to smaller, cheaper EV batteries regardless that can easily store the necessary power
- We’ve been unable to properly maintain and fund fixing existing roads, so why should we believe it’s plausible to do that with roads that have more moving parts
- Autonomous vehicles will be able to easily plug in or latch on to fixed charging stations using the very AI that is allowing them to drive in the first place
There are solid arguments on both sides here.
We think it comes down to how much of the transportation future will rest in autonomous fleets vs. a mix of fleets and private ownership.
It’s hard to buy into much upside of electric roads for privately owned EVs since they can easily be charged at home when not on the road and given 99% of people don’t need more than the 200+ miles EVs will soon be able to cover on a single full charge, there won’t be much need to charge them on the go. And yes, today having a home charging station is a bit of a luxury but that will change over the next 5-10 years. The US is building out 500,000 public charging stations by 2030 and there is a ton of private capital deployed to do the same. The future EV charging station may even be a bit of a getaway oasis for 30-60 minutes while your car charges up.
However when it comes to large autonomous fleets, electric roads present a much stronger case. Keeping these vehicles on the road and moving creates less need for overall vehicle manufacturing and more efficiency for routes without the need to swap out vehicles in between for getting them recharged. If you believe this is the future of transportation and we will soon be at a place where private car ownership is more or less obsolete, then the cost and resources for converting our roads to electric instead of building out a mass load of charging stations may make economic sense.
So the verdict is out in a way. Let’s see how well these tests perform in the coming years while we also follow the advancement of autonomous fleets. Either way, electric vehicles are the path forward.
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EUROPE DECLARES NUCLEAR & NATURAL GAS AS “GREEN” INVESTMENTS
The European Commission’s announcement this week that nuclear and natural gas will qualify as “green investments” has underscored growing tension and controversy over the future of energy in the EU. The EU framed both energy sources as key transition vehicles towards a total renewable future with plans still of hitting net-zero emissions by 2050 and critical to getting off far dirtier coal and oil in the short-term given renewables such as wind & solar still have key infrastructure work to go (namely transmission & battery storage) to getting to scale.
The proposal will allow new natural gas plants to be built up until 2030, and new nuclear fission plants to be built up until 2045, with no hard or specific date on when both sources would be phased out. The countries in the EU now have 6 months to cast their vote on approval, and there is a ton of conflict brewing.
Nuclear is really at the crux of the clean energy debate, which is not unique to Europe, and something we stand behind here at Animalia. We’ll get to that in a second. First, the inclusion of natural gas was surprising and a bit disturbing.
Proponents of natural gas cite that it is far cleaner than coal or oil – which it is – and cheaper than most other energy sources – which is also true. Given Europe is in an energy crisis right now with wholesale prices rising 4x vs. pre-pandemic levels, this is certainly factoring into this decision. However natural gas emits a lot of methane, as much as 15-25% of all the methane emissions globally per year by most estimates (350 million tons is the global level). This is a problem given methane traps heat at 80x the rate of CO2.
So while natural gas is cleaner than other fossil fuels, it’s still not clean. But perhaps the reason it is being included in this proposal as a “green investment” is because Europe can’t seem to get aligned on what to do with nuclear energy.
THE EUROPEAN COLD WAR ON NUCLEAR
The EU is incredibly divided over what to do with Nuclear, and the map below clearly lays this out. The opposing sides of this debate are led by France and Germany respectively.
France is the nuclear captain of the world. They derive over 70% of their energy from nuclear (by comparison the US is ~20%) and invest even more. Due to their longstanding investment in nuclear tech, they’ve also gotten much better at key nuclear drawbacks like safety (zero accidents) and waste (now reusing 90% of spent nuclear fuel).
Germany is on the other end of the spectrum, and in fact just closed 3 of its remaining 6 plants and will shut down the other 3 by the end of 2022. This stems from the Fukushima accident in Japan in 2011. That accident raised the anti-nuclear voices in Germany leading chancellor Angela Merkel to declare the end of nuclear energy in Germany over the next decade, which is coming to fruition this year. There is so much anti-nuclear sentiment in Germany that nobody believes this energy source can survive there politically.
Why is nuclear so controversial?
Well on one hand, it is as clean as it gets. Each kilowatt/hour of nuclear electricity emits zero greenhouse gas, just like wind and solar. It is also very reliable and steady with no intermittence or need for battery storage, and can be built right outside of major markets with minimal land use. The detractors of nuclear energy, however, point to the risk of accidents, high costs of development, and environmental risk posed by nuclear waste.
Accident risk is there but that is being mitigated quite a bit by the latest small modular reactor tech, which in turn also will help alleviate the high costs and delays of plant construction. Waste is still an open issue that even we, nuclear proponents, struggle with. Low level waste like spent fuel can be reused in various ways. But high level waste is just sitting in metal casings around the world, waiting for a scalable solution such as vitrification to allow that waste to be safely stored underground. We just aren’t there yet. So continuing to expand nuclear requires some good faith that we will solve that waste problem as it starts to stockpile.
One has to wonder if the EU’s inability to get alignment on nuclear power is leading to the recommendation of a continued investment in natural gas, an energy source far more problematic. Or if it’s more about economics given the rise in prices coming out of this pandemic that caused such a major slowdown in 2020 leading to the challenges we’ve seen in the last year in ramping production back up.
We are not surprised by this decision from the EU and are seeing similar things play out here in the US, where there is a growing contingent of folks standing behind natural gas as critical to getting us off coal and oil while protecting consumer prices.
That said, if we would properly invest in the infrastructure needed for wind and solar, get support behind nuclear and stop subsidizing fossil fuels which helps keep their effective costs to consumers low, this wouldn’t be the case.
This is the challenge of democracy at times. When we can’t get consensus, we end up in a bit of a standstill. In this case, the lack of consensus around nuclear and renewable infrastructure is keeping us dependent on fossil fuels. This is exactly what is playing out now in the EU.
Without consensus on investing in nuclear or major big time breakthroughs on renewable infrastructure like batteries ahead of schedule, expect natural gas to continue to be part of the mix.
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