🌎 #272: Is carbon removal real?

Quinn Emmett
April 15, 2022
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Welcome back, Shit Givers.

Our Membership program launched this week and holy shit I'm so thankful to everyone who immediately decided to support our work and get smarter about what's coming down the pipe. Check it out and apply to the Community here.

This Week, Summarized:

  • Carbon removal: Hope is not a plan. A bajillion dollars might be!
  • COVID and diabetes is the new Bennifer
  • Walmart's regenerative farming pledge is about dirt
  • PFAS in food wrappers, not delicious
  • How hospitals get cyberattacked, but why

Reminder: You can read this issue on the website, or you can 🎧 listen to it on the podcast (shortly).

πŸ•› Reading Time: 11 minutes



Time to suck!

The news: In just the past few days, almost a billion and a half dollars have been pledged or raised from Stripe, Meta, Alphabet, Shopify, and Lowercarbon to jumpstart carbon removal from the air and oceans, at scale. Or, you know, to work at all.

Understand it: The latest IPCC report documents our need to remove billions of tons of COβ‚‚ from the atmosphere.

But let's back up and try to understand why this mandate is so complicated, and controversial:

The One Ring To Unite Them All is decarbonization of every industry we've got, as soon as possible. This is not only the most affordable way to transition to a cleaner future, but the most affordable way to run our economies right now

It's affordable and doable because we've spent decades iterating on the various technology stacks involved, and then scaling the shit out of them.

The result? In 2021, 10% of the world's electricity came from wind and solar. That's fucking awesome, and accomplished with the equivalent of one hand behind our back.

However: A growing number of companies, utilities, and governments have tasked their marketing departments with splashing "net zero" plans that make few measurable commitments to decarbonization, but do heavily depend on carbon removal and other offset mechanisms that are either hot air, or still unproven.

I sincerely believe they're "hot air" not because of liquidity concerns (though even with this week's deals, offsets are a small % of committed global climate action), but because the fundamental assets and mechanisms involved have been nearly impossible to prove, much less at scale, from planting or protecting trees, to building huge vacuum cleaners for the sky (examples here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

So, to date, whether via traditional markets, government purchases, or the blockchain, an enormous number of low-quality credits are being purchased and used as escape hatches by the entities above. This is not helpful.

But here's the thing: We do need to remove a boatload of historic carbon from the atmosphere if we want to stay anywhere under 2Β°C, and the Global North should pay our fair share to do so.

But as long as people, companies, and governments are able to legally "offset" continued emissions, and advertise and capitalize on their ability to do so, with no standardization or accountability or actually reducing their emissions, we will never get to net zero.

Moral of the story: Decarbonize is priorities 1, 2, and 3.

And simultaneously, throwing money at basic science, tech labs, established carbon removal companies and startups -- like we did with solar -- is really the only way to find out if carbon removal tech going to A) work and B) scale, ever. Same with biotech, etc! These new deals could go a long way to doing that and I applaud the very smart folks behind them for trying to kickstart this thing.

⚑️Action Step: It's well past time for the US Congress to vote on decarbonizing our economy, stat. Call your senators with Climate Changemakers and demand they do so.



Vaccine equity update: Just 14.8% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose, and 35.2% of people worldwide have received zero doses.

It's not about the new wave

The news: Another wave of COVID is most likely coursing through the United States, but the situation on the ground -- and what we and you can do about it -- is more complicated than ever.

Set the stage: Our community is a biased sample -- unless you are among those who are immunocompromised or otherwise unable, you are almost certainly vaccinated at least once, if not three times, from a potpourri of available shots. Further, OG Omicron left many with varying levels of natural immunity.

Meanwhile, variants like BA.2 are driving an increase in cases, but the picture is incomplete. Since at-home tests became more available, and since the CDC began relying on hospitalizations as a risk metric, some states have stopped reporting cases altogether.

Many of us are drastically more protected than we were a year ago, but what comes next?

Understand it: One small item I feel is under-covered is how 400 million actual people are in COVID lockdown in China, as actual robots patrol the streets, making sure people stay in their homes. Everything is fine.

China would like you to believe this outbreak has led to one (1) severe case and no deaths, which, ok, but the relevant takeaway for you is this thing is still very real for billions of folks in myriad ways.

And as I've written ad nauseam, every new person infected is an opportunity for not only disease and death, but a new mutation, and -- with inflation skyrocketing and recession concerns mounting quickly -- continually and absolutely clobbered supply chains.

For better or worse, we are all connected, by the air we breathe and transmit viruses over, and the complex supply chains that fuel our livelihoods, businesses, and economies.

We keep fighting the last war. We spent billions to jumpstart vaccines, and eventually, testing, but have backed off on both, and failed to vaccinate the world.

In past recessions, we didn't spend enough to support lost incomes. In this one, we probably spent too much. But we also lifted a whole lot of folks (and kids!) out of poverty -- and then let them fall back into it.

More of our workforce is online than ten years ago, and FWIW food delivery exists at scale, saving huge parts of the economy. But the people that aren't online, who service those of us who are online, or who harvest and pack the food we order online, suffered disproportionately, and we've barely started to grieve for them.

"Science" locked is in our homes, and then got us out of them, but we fail to trust that it's a process, not a result, and that may be because our education system is increasingly unequal and now inextricably politicized, and because we're truly terrible at handling uncertainty.

A viral pop quiz that evaluated every societal and economic decision we've ever made didn't go great, and so a president ran on a mid-pandemic transformative social agenda, very little of which has either come to pass, or will last through 2022.

Building a cleaner, safer, more resilient, society means not having to respond so historically to a threat that could be less historic simply because we made better choices to

An essence of INI's mission is "It doesn't have to be this way." Universal health care, a focus on wellness, paid time off, 10x trained nurses, 10x housing, global vaccine equity, eliminating air pollution, increased ventilation, and expanded leading indicators (like wastewater, below) can make for a drastically more resilient society on any given day.

⚑️Action Step: Check your county's wastewater data for COVID prevalence here, protect yourself accordingly, and better understand how we can roll it out across the US here.



How to fix our soil

The news: Over the past few years, massive companies like Walmart and Burger King pledged to manage or restore 50 million acres of land as part of an effort to slide a gigaton of emissions out of its moderately complicated supply chain in the next ten years.

Understand it: There's no real rule book to define regenerative farming or the practices behind it, which is part of the problem, but the idea usually includes some combination of no-till farming, rotational grazing, and ditching toxic chemical fertilizers.

Soil is not only important to storing carbon, but also for growing crops (most of which are used to feed industrial meat, but I digress) and profits.

Farmers from Texas to Mexico, the mid-Atlantic to Wyoming, and Minnesota have embraced regenerative practices, and while the transition isn't easy or cheap, it could make for healthier soil, save small farms, and clean waterways like the mighty Chesapeake.

Whether it can succeed at scale depends on realigning incentives away from monocrops, meat, and other industrial agriculture, and towards measurable improvements to the land itself.

⚑️Action Step: Read "Lentil Underground" by Liz Carlisle to get a better understanding of how we can rebuild our topsoil -- and diets -- for a warmer future. Fun fact: lentils create their own fertilizer! WTF!

INI Membership 2



A mirage in the desert

The news: As larger grocers abandoned them, "food deserts" were once the most popular answer to the question "Why is healthy and affordable food scarcely available to marginalized people, contributing to poverty and conditions like hypertension and diabetes?"

Enter: Dollar stores, the number of which have exploded in those communities, only to face recent backlash for targeting folks below the poverty line, and according to various reports, failing to provide anything close to fresh food.

Understand it: This is what it means to be trapped in a system. If you are only able to afford food at a certain price point, and there exists only one type of grocer, and one who doesn't offer fresh food, you are more or less incapable of improving your health on a day-to-day basis.

Again, our systems are interwoven, and recently tested: We don't really know how, yet (taps the "science is a process" sign), but not only are diabetes and obesity risk factors for more severe COVID, but it also looks like a COVID infection increases the risk of being diagnosed with diabetes.

And they go deeper: The Campaign for Healthier Solutions bought 226 products from a range of dollar stores, and found PFAS (or "forever chemicals") in half of the products, many of which were food packaging.

In those areas "lucky" enough to have major brand fast food, a California study found PFAS that exceed legal thresholds in 1 in 5 food packages. Why are those chemicals used in food packages? Because they resist water and grease.

States are taking action: 17 have at least proposed regulations to limit PFAS in food packages. Companies are aware, too, and some are making measurable improvements: SweetGreen's numbers have come down dramatically since a 2019 report.

⚑️Action Step: Check out the report on Dollar Store PFAS and then subscribe to Civil Eats, an invaluable source of food policy journalism.



How hospitals are cyberattacked

The news: Cybersecurity -- at every level -- is among the issues of our time.

For this week, let's do a brief scan of global events:

  • A state-sponsored Chinese group called ShadowPad may have worked for at least the past two years to hack India's power sector
  • Two weeks ago, I asked, "Where are Putin's cyberattackers?"
  • And then last week, the US claimed to have secretly removed Russian-implanted malware worldwide in a preemptive move to fend off exactly those kinds of attackers
  • The US also warned this week that custom-made tools are in use to breach critical infrastructure

None of this is news, but you should be aware of it, and you need to grok the attacks happening every day at a much smaller scale, with crushing consequences, at small and rural hospitals across the US, where the industry spends just 6% of its IT budgets on cybersecurity.

Perspective: In the US, there are on average 5-6 networked devices per hospital bed. One example, from rural Oregon:

"At the time of the attack, October 2020, the hospital was battling its first local surge of Covid-19. Hospital officials quickly decided on the most extreme counter-response: powering down about 2,500 devices and more than 600 servers, Gaede said. β€œAnything that had a computer in it, we shut it off.”

For the next 23 days, clinicians and nurses used pen and paper for note-taking, struggling to care for patients without access to their medical histories, lab results and imaging scans, appointment calendars, or emergency contacts. Cancer patients faced a choice between driving an hour or more for radiation elsewhere, or holding off on treatment until (the hospital) recovered."

When these attacks happen, hospitals not only have to fork over on average $350,000 in ransom, but lose billing services, are forced to buy new computers, and lose patient trust, costing even more long-term.

⚑️Action Step: Cybersecurity may be one area that unites Washington, and recent bills indicate more protections may be coming. Get up to speed with the recently introduced and bipartisan State and Local Cybersecurity Improvement Act here.


Thanks for reading, and thanks for giving a shit.

Have a great weekend.

-- Quinn

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