Ukraine’s Nuclear Stakes, Shipping’s Decarbonization Route, And A Chat About Real Estate’s Flooding Risk

This week’s Current Climate, which every Saturday brings you a balanced view of sustainability news. Sign up to get it in your inbox every week.

The U.S. has banned imports of oil, gas and energy from Russia to stop “subsidizing” the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine, as President Joe Biden put it. But the European Union is less able to take such drastic measures due to its greater dependency on Russian fossil fuels for its energy mix. Nonetheless, the bloc announced plans this week to slash two thirds of its Russian gas demand by the end of the year, while bringing forward its climate target of slashing greenhouse gas emissions by 55% from 2035 to 2030.

Reducing consumption of fossil fuels isn’t just a geopolitically savvy measure—it has real, measurable consequences on people’s health. A low-carbon economy, argued global health expert Jonathan Patz, could drastically cut the number of premature deaths worldwide.

Other stories I’m highlighting this week discuss the promising future for algae in manufacturing, the consequences of nickel price volatility for electric vehicles and what the shipping industry needs to achieve decarbonization.

For Climate Talks, following from the recent NOAA study predicting that sea levels will rise in the next 30 years by as much as what’s been observed in the past century, I talked to urban planning expert Dr. Miyuki Hino about how real estate can deal with worsening flood risk.

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Big Read

Chernobyl Reminds Us What’s At Stake In Russia’s War On Ukraine

The war in Ukraine raises a new kind of nuclear threat: not nuclear missiles or bombs, but conventional artillery strikes that could trigger a nuclear meltdown at a power plant under fire.

The Progress

When properly cultivated, the humble algae can be used to make a variety of products, including renewable biofuels, construction materials and food ingredients. While the algae industry is arguably still nascent, it is full of promise.

The Challenges

The auto industry’s efforts to ramp up electric vehicle output may be hampered by a spike in nickel prices, a key component of batteries that European carmakers largely sourced from Russia.

The Other Big Read

Is Shipping Making Waves When It Comes To Decarbonization?

The International Maritime Organization has agreed to at least a 50% cut in emissions by 2050, although many shipping firms would like to see it go further.

Climate Talks

A report published by the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last month projected a 12-inch (30 centimeter) sea level rise along the U.S. coastline in the next 30 years—the same amount by which they’ve risen over the past century. What does this mean for real estate markets and for communities? I talked about this with Miyuki Hino, assistant professor in city and regional planning, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The research you carried out last year indicates that properties in areas at risk of flooding are overvalued by nearly $44 billion as the market is failing to price in the risk properly. A Yale study also found that the sea level rise risk isn’t affecting prices for waterfront properties, at least for now. Yet the threat is very real. Is the market being too complacent, or is awareness lacking?

Multiple studies have found that awareness of flood risk and pricing into real estate markets are either non-existent or smaller than we would have expected it to be, based on an irrational thinking around the expected costs of flooding. There have been other studies that have found that sea level rise is affecting real estate markets. I would say the question is an open one. We know with quite high levels of confidence how much sea level rise to expect in the next couple of decades, and we can do things like put houses on stilts, build seawalls and adjust the way that businesses and societies operate in different ways. There is a plausible scenario here—which is that the folks who own and buy oceanfront low-lying coastal property believe very strongly in the ability of themselves and their communities to cope with those changes over time. And therefore, there’s not really much reason to worry about prices rising.

Historically, we have found that there is a lack of awareness and lack of pricing or incomplete pricing. But I think that might change as we have growing awareness of flood risk and how that’s going to change in the future.

What’s been done to manage flood risk?

In the U.S., in the U.K. and in a number of other countries, we’ve seen government programs that purchase homes at some amount of compensation to their owners in order to restore that land to open space. That’s not necessarily a scalable solution, but it does recognize that real estate can be a huge component of household assets and it would be incredibly difficult for these people to find anywhere else to live.

It also recognizes that, in some cases, the risks to the property may not have been known at the time it was purchased. It introduces a lot of challenging questions about what’s fair and what’s equitable and what a public sector can take on in these types of situations. But I think more and more we’re going to see either expansions of existing programs or new versions of these programs to address those types of situations.

It seems like the public will have to bear a lot of the costs. Is the private sector involved at all?

The examples that are coming to mind right now are kind of small. For example, there’s a conservation organization that serves as an entity that takes ownership over the land [from the local government]. There are also different types of private organizations thinking about whether to compensate homeowners through programs such as wetland restoration, or other types of environmental credit options.

There’s creative thinking around how the private sector can be part of this challenge, but it’s tricky because people living [in flood risk areas] are in really vulnerable situations. Some people [don’t trust] having the private sector engage in this process and think that if they’re involved, they’re just going to turn this land into a hotel or that they are going to be taken advantage of. It’s really important that trust is built up during this process and not eroded, so I think people are treading carefully.

What’s next for your research?

One area is the confluence of real estate-related changes. Things that might change the cost of flood insurance, the way mortgages are assessed, the way local governments raise money and pay for things like big adaptation measures. Thinking about that combination of normal dynamics that we only sort of understand, plus the potential new changes, is where a lot of work is headed.

And this big divide, the big differences and who bears the burden, [is also something] we don’t fully understand. We know little about how the distributional effects of some of these real estate price changes or insurance industry changes might differ across different parts of the exposed population. That will be critical for informing the design of regulation that doesn’t disproportionately hit the most marginalized communities.

Dr. Miyuki Hino’s answers were condensed and edited for brevity and clarity.

On The Horizon

New research found that global weather events caused by El Niño climate pattern, which is linked to warming sea temperature in the equatorial Pacific, will likely become more frequent within the next two decades regardless of any reduction in carbon emissions, due to the amount of carbon dioxide already released into the atmosphere.

Take A Look

Large Swathes Of Amazon Rainforest Could Be On Brink Of Die-Off, Study Says

Over three-quarters of the Amazon rainforest has been losing its ability to recover from drought and man-made disruptions since the early 2000s, according to a study published in Nature Climate Change.

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