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Ask a Scientist: Will the Biden Nuclear Weapons Policy Wind up Being the Same Old Same Old?

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By Elliott Negin

More so than most of the previous occupants of the White House, Joe Biden — a former Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman — is steeped in all things nuclear, and he has long embraced the common sense view that nuclear arsenals must be reduced dramatically.

During the 2020 presidential campaign, arms control advocates were heartened when Biden agreed that the US policy reserving the right to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict should be reevaluated and reiterated his opposition to a new “low yield” nuclear weapon the Trump administration planned to field on submarines. Likewise, they applauded when — just a week after taking office — President Biden extended the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, which was set to expire in early February. This treaty limits deployed nuclear warheads on each side to 1,550.

But do Biden’s campaign talking points and his quick action on New START signal that his administration will make some sorely needed changes in US nuclear policy? We will soon find out. The administration plans to release what’s called the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which every administration since Bill Clinton was president has issued, early this year. The document will define what kind of nuclear weapons the United States will have, how it will use them, and how they fit in with the rest of US military and foreign policy plans.

The NPR has not changed much in 30 years, regardless of who was sitting in the Oval Office, and some would argue — including experts at UCS — that reform in light of 21st century realities is long overdue.

To get some insight into which direction the Biden administration might take on this critical issue, I contacted Eryn MacDonald, who has been an analyst with the UCS Global Security Program since 2011. MacDonald is an expert in international security, arms control and nonproliferation, US-China relations, and East Asian security, and earned a master’s degree in government from Cornell University. Below is an abridged version of our conversation.

EN: First, happy new year. Let’s hope this year is better than 2021, but based on what you had to say last year on this topic, I’m worried that we may be too optimistic about making progress. You wrote a blog last June, for example, pointing out the Biden administration’s fiscal year (FY) 2022 military budget request fully funded all the nuclear weapons the Trump administration proposed — including, of all things, the new, sea-launched cruise missile Biden said he opposed — and called for spending even more on the nuclear arsenal than the previous year. What just happened in Congress last month with the military budget, and what does that bode for the NPR?

EM: The Biden administration’s FY22 budget request was disappointing to those of us who hoped he would live up to his stated opposition to new nuclear weapons. Rather than making cuts, it fully funded all programs — including, as you said, the new nuclear weapons the previous administration wanted. The budget also added money to extend the life of the massive and unnecessary B83 bomb — 80 times more destructive than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima — that the Obama administration had planned to retire. Biden’s first budget requested more funding for nuclear weapons programs than in the previous year and Congress essentially approved it wholesale as part of the FY22 National Defense Authorization Act, which Biden signed into law on December 27.

While the spending bill and the Nuclear Posture Review are separate processes and do different things — the NPR focuses much more on top-level policy — the failure of the Biden administration budget to reverse course on such new weapons as the nuclear sea-launched cruise missile or even eliminate low-hanging fruit such as the B83 does not bode well for the NPR’s outcome. At least, not for anyone hoping for real progress toward eliminating unnecessary nuclear weapons and instituting substantive changes in US nuclear policy to reduce the risk that these weapons would ever be used.

EN: The news media reported early last year that President Biden’s national security team supported negotiating new arms control treaties, cutting back the US nuclear arsenal, and taking a hard look at outdated military doctrine. But more recently, there have been stories about a Pentagon backlash against making any significant changes to the NPR because of Russian and Chinese nuclear buildups. Is that a credible rationale? What do you expect will happen when all the dust settles?

EM: President Biden has a long history of supporting nuclear arms control and reduction policies, and he entered office promising to carry through on his commitments in this area and tap experts who share a similar vision for his national security team. We thought that signaled there would be significant movement toward a saner, safer US nuclear policy via the Nuclear Posture Review process, which is the most obvious way for a president to direct major shifts.

It is not surprising that there would be pushback from status quo forces in the Pentagon and elsewhere against any substantial change. That has happened before, derailing attempts in more than one NPR to take anything more than incremental steps. As the Biden NPR process has unfolded, more progressive voices have been sidelined, so this NPR now seems to be consigned to the same fate.

Russian and Chinese nuclear buildups certainly have not helped, giving cover to the folks who would have resisted change in any case. But what Russia and China are doing actually make the kinds of changes we want Biden to make more important. Declaring that the United States would never be the first to use nuclear weapons — a policy China has had since it first built nuclear weapons, ending the president’s sole authority to order a nuclear launch, and taking US nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert are all changes that could help de-escalate the budding arms race with Russia and China. None of these policy changes would undermine the US nuclear deterrent, and all of them would strengthen US security by reducing the risk of accidental or mistaken nuclear war.

At this point, the prospect for major change through the NPR process appears slim. To say that President Biden has had a lot to deal with in his first year in office is beyond an understatement, and his attention has very likely been elsewhere, despite his longstanding interest in nuclear issues. The remaining hope is that once he sees the document himself, he may reject an NPR draft that goes against his stated desire to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in US policy and leaves out some of the policies — such as no-first-use — that he has said he supports. In that case he would have to ask for a revised draft more in keeping with his own vision.

EN: Let’s talk about the ramifications of the United States adopting a no-first-use policy, which would have the United States pledge to never use nuclear weapons first in a conflict or declare their “sole purpose” is to deter, or retaliate against, a nuclear attack on the United States or its allies. According to some press reports, the prospect of such a policy makes some US allies nervous, like Britain, France, and Japan. What would be the benefit of this policy? What are the chances that the new NPR will include one?

EM: During his 2020 presidential campaign, Biden expressed clear support for a no-first-use policy, but it is not a new position for him. He addressed the issue near the end of his last term as vice president, stating that “the president and I strongly believe we have made enough progress that deterring — and if necessary, retaliating against — a nuclear attack should be the sole purpose of the US nuclear arsenal.”

Some may quibble with the difference between declaring “sole purpose” and “no first use,” but the result in either case would be an immediate reduction in the possibility of a nuclear war. It would lower the risk of miscalculation in the event of a crisis with another nuclear-armed state, because it would lessen their incentive to try to preempt the United States from using nuclear weapons. It would also reduce the risk associated with the US president’s sole authority to order the use of nuclear weapons by removing the option for any president to order a launch first.

Concern about US allies’ reaction is apparently what prevented the Obama administration from declaring a no-first-use policy a decade ago. But such concerns are likely overblown. In Japan, for instance, my colleagues Gregory Kulacki, Jennifer Knox, and Miyako Kurosaki found that while there may be a minority of hardliners within the government opposed to a US no-first-use declaration, a majority of the general population is in favor of the United States taking such a step.

In a 2020 column in Foreign Affairs, Biden reiterated his support for a sole purpose declaration, adding that as “president, I will work to put that belief into practice, in consultation with the US military and US allies.” The Biden administration should do as he promised and reassure Japan and our European allies that the United States remains committed to their security and that first use of nuclear weapons is not a necessary — or realistic — part of upholding that commitment.

EN: Last February, more than 30 House Democrats sent a letter to the White House asking President Biden to renounce the president’s sole authority to order a nuclear launch, arguing that no single individual should have that power. UCS has been advocating for the end to this policy for years. Does Biden have the ability to make this change? What are the prospects?

EM: President Biden absolutely has the ability — and authority — to make this change, and it would go a long way toward making us all safer. Just last year, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley was so concerned about President Trump’s stability, especially after the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol, that he made plans to intervene if the president gave the order to launch nuclear weapons. Milley reportedly told senior officers that although the president could give such an order, Milley also needed to be involved.

In fact, Milley had no real authority to insert himself into this process, regardless of any understanding he may have reached with those officers. But while stories like this one make the dangers of sole authority glaringly obvious, they can also distract from the fact that it is a problem even when there are no serious concerns about a president’s mental state.

There have been attempts to end sole authority through legislation, and Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey and California Rep. Ted Lieu last year reintroduced a bill prohibiting the president from launching a nuclear first strike without a declaration of war by Congress. But this approach would be unusual. Normally, US nuclear policy is set by the president, so Biden is the one who could most straightforwardly make a change, simply by declaring that he wants to end the policy and instructing the Pentagon to adjust its procedures accordingly. UCS experts, as well as others, have suggested multiple ways that this could be done quickly and easily using existing communications systems.

It is still unclear whether Biden will take this step. So far, there does not seem to be much of an appetite in his administration for rocking the boat, but ending sole authority might be less controversial than some other policy changes, and would be an easy way to reduce the risk of nuclear war.

EN: Last month, nearly 700 scientists and engineers, including 21 Nobel laureates, made news when they called on President Biden to use the NPR to declare a no-first-use policy and cut the US nuclear arsenal by a third. Their open letter also asked the president to cancel plans to replace the current ICBM fleet. That letter came on the heels of a similar letter from local, county and state officials. What kind of an impact can letters like these have?

EM: Advocacy on nuclear policy issues can sometimes be frustrating. Apart from occasional headline-grabbing moments, such as a North Korean nuclear test or a US president vowing “fire and fury” in response to North Korean threats, nuclear weapons are not top-of-mind for most people these days. Many also believe that they are not qualified to have an opinion on nuclear issues because they are not experts, even though decisions that political and military leaders make about nuclear weapons have the potential to impact the lives of every person on the planet.

In reality, pressure from specific groups, such as scientists, as well as the general public have historically been key to making progress in reducing the nuclear threat. The recent letter is just the latest example of scientists using their technical expertise as a springboard to speak out against nuclear weapons — a movement that began with some of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project to develop the first atomic bomb. The Union of Concerned Scientists itself was born out of that legacy of scientists who were deeply invested in ending the nuclear threat.

The letter you mentioned from more than 300 local and state level officials was the result of ongoing hard work by my colleagues at UCS, the Physicians for Social Responsibility, and other groups that organized the Back from the Brink campaign. The campaign now has a supporter base of nearly 400 organizations, more than 300 state and local elected officials, 55 municipalities, and six state legislatures, all working to prevent nuclear war and make nuclear abolition a reality.

Bringing in voices outside of the usual suspects is a necessary first step to shift the dialogue about nuclear weapons from its entrenched focus on such traditional topics as deterrence and military security to a broader perspective that prioritizes a more human-centered definition of security. Expanding the conversation also could encourage a wider recognition of the true costs of nuclear weapons, not only the potential human and environmental devastation resulting from their use, but also the fact that they divert billions of dollars that could otherwise be used for healthcare, education, housing, and other basic human needs.

Originally published by Union of Concerned Scientists, The Equation.

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The Solid-State Energy Storage Dam Is About to Bust Wide Open

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New solid state lithium-ion energy storage technology is still in the R&D phase, and it has already attracted EV manufacturers who love the idea of packing more muscle into smaller spaces while saving on weight, improving performance, and enhancing their safety profile, too. Now it looks like the stationary storage field is also coming over to the solid-state side, too.

QuantumScape Is On A Solid-State Energy Storage Tear

For those of you new to the topic, conventional lithium-ion batteries are based on a liquid electrolyte, which can be a bit testy unless properly engineered.

One emerging solution is to ditch the liquid electrolyte altogether in favor of a solid material, such as a specialized ceramic. The solid-state approach is also a tricky one, but one of the scientists pursuing the solid-state unicorn is famed University of Texas researcher John Goodenough, who is widely credited with inventing the rechargeable lithium-ion technology of today, and that is a pretty good indicator of the quality of the research in that direction.

Solid-state battery materials were a known thing by the early 19th century, but commercial interest in solid-state batteries didn’t really pick up a head of steam until 2020, when the idea took off like a rocket in the electric vehicle field.

The solid-state battery firm QuantumScape currently cites relationships with three automakers, including Volkswagen Group. The two companies began collaborating on solid-state EV batteries in 2015.

They have upped the ante since then, with plans in the works for a pilot manufacturing facility in Germany. In a recent letter to shareholders, QauntumScape described the battery manufacturing plan and issued a progress report on its four-layer solid-state cells, with each layer consisting of “a cathode, a solid-state separator, and an in-situ formed lithium-metal anode.”

Next Steps For Solid-State Energy Storage

QauntumScape is not letting the energy storage grass grow under its feet. Last week the company announced an agreement with the leading energy technology company Fluence, which is the first non-automotive partnership for its lithium-metal battery technology.

That’s a significant development, considering that as recently as last summer the market analyst IDTechEx was assuming that electric vehicles would lead the demand for solid-state batteries, followed by smart phones. Stationary storage could skip right over both of their heads in short order.

“The strategic relationship brings together two companies leading in technology innovation focused on accelerating clean energy adoption and reducing global carbon emissions,” QuantumScape enthuses. “The companies will collaborate on what they believe to be a first-of-its-kind solution to incorporate QuantumScape’s battery technology into Fluence stationary energy storage products as specific technical and commercial milestones are met.”

The two firms are eyeballing a hot growth rate for stationary energy storage in the coming years. Fluence already has a track record in deploying energy storage to improve transmission networks and replace new gas peaker plants, so look for the partners to zero in on those areas as well as others.

As a partner company that links Siemens and the utility AES, Fluence is in a good position to speed those lithium-metal batteries to market whenever they come rolling off the assembly line.

More Solid-State Batteries For More EVs

Meanwhile, last spring Ford and BMW also hooked up to the solid-state battery train last year. Mercedes-Benz and Stellantis caught the solid-state bug, too. GM dropped a hint about its future solid-state battery ambitions last month when it formed a partnership with the Korean firm POSCO Chemical. Toyota and Hyundai are also reported to be on board.

That’s an awfully big field of energy storage players scrambling for technology that probably won’t hit the market until 2025. However, it does give the R&D folks time to work out any remaining kinks.

One especially interesting development recently popped up in a study published in the journal Nature, which describes a “a class of elastomeric solid-state electrolytes with a three-dimensional interconnected plastic crystal phase.” The new electrolytes demonstrate “a combination of mechanical robustness, high ionic conductivity, low interfacial resistance and high lithium-ion transference number” along with “a powerful strategy for enabling stable operation of high-energy, solid-state lithium batteries.”

The research is a collaboration between the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology and the Georgia Institute of Technology.

In a press release on the new study, GIT explains that elastomers are common synthetic rubbers. Rubber is not the first material that comes to mind when the topic turns to next-generation energy storage materials, but the research team gave their elastomer a high tech twist that transformed it into a “superhighway for fast lithium-ion transport with superior mechanical toughness, resulting in longer charging batteries that can go farther.”

“The key breakthrough was allowing the material to form a three-dimensional interconnected plastic crystal phase within the robust rubber matrix. This unique structure has resulted in high ionic conductivity, superior mechanical properties and electrochemical stability,” explains GIT.

The new electrolytes prevent the lithium dendrite growth that bedevils their liquid counterparts. GIT also notes that fabricating the new electrolyte is a relatively simple, low temperature process that yields a high quality result.

But…What About The Lithium?

Yes, what about it? EV supply chain observers have been watching the lithium supply chain like a hawk. The general consensus is that there needs to be a serious uptick in availability as the energy storage market takes off.

Solid-state technology can assist, partly by introducing more robust batteries with a longer lifecycle, and by decluttering the recycling pathway. However, the global lithium supply chain still has to pump itself up as the demand for batteries accelerates.

Lithium mining and brine extraction are two solutions at hand, but they can easily run afoul of environmental and cultural preservation goals. A more promising area of lithium R&D is geothermal extraction without the use of large evaporation lagoons.

Last June our friends over at the US Department of Energy produced a blueprint for lithium supply in the US and noted that “The worldwide lithium-battery market is expected to grow by a factor of 5 to 10 in the next decade.”

“The U.S. industrial base must be positioned to respond to this vast increase in market demand that otherwise will likely benefit well-resourced and supported competitors in Asia and Europe,” they added.

Game on!

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EVs Beat Diesels As Electric Car Sales Ramp up in Europe

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Auto analyst Mathias Schmidt tells the Financial Times that sales of battery-electric cars in Europe and the UK were higher than sales of diesel-powered cars for the first time in December. “The diesel death march has been playing on repeat since September 2015 when ‘Dieselgate’ was first unveiled — causing VW to draw up the first plans of the ID.3 within 30 days of the scandal coming to light,” he said. The December data indicates 176,000 battery electric vehicles were sold in December — 6% more than in December, 2020 — as opposed to 160,000 diesels.

The Financial Times goes to some lengths to point out to its readers that the boom in electric cars is largely attributable to generous government subsidies and draconian emissions rules that force manufacturers to build low and zero emissions cars. That approach, of course, is anathema to “free market” advocates. If it weren’t for the fact that the world is hurtling toward a climate catastrophe of unimaginable proportions, such market machinations might be condemned and rightfully so.

The Financial Times reports the German government is about to revisit the wisdom of tax credits for diesel fuel that make it 14 cents per liter cheaper than premium gasoline. The love affair with diesel in Europe began after the OPEC oil embargoes in the 1970s.

Diesel engines do squeeze more miles out of a gallon of fuel than gasoline engines, and so there was a reason to promote the sale of diesel-powered vehicles at that time. The mechanism most countries chose was to increase taxes on gasoline and decrease taxes on diesel fuel. The justification for doing that has long since evaporated, however.

According to SwissInfo, sales of electric vehicles — including plug-in hybrids and conventional hybrids — reached a “tipping point” in 2021, particularly at the end of the year. For the period from September to November, fully electric vehicles accounted for 18.3% of new registrations. Including plug-in hybrids, that figure rose to 28% according to the Touring Club Switzerland. The Tesla Model 3 leads all other EV models in sales in Switzerland. The Volkswagen ID.3 is in second place, with less than half as many cars sold.

“Given the ongoing technological advancements, increased social acceptance and the ever-increasing choice of electric vehicle models, the development of electromobility is progressing faster than expected. The 50%-mark for fully electric vehicles, which most experts expected only around 2030, should therefore be reached significantly faster than expected,” TCS said.

While Switzerland’s EV charging infrastructure is on par with that in other European countries — a total of 8,497 public charging stations were available across Switzerland as of the end of 2021 — there are still too few chargers available for apartment dwellers and those who park on the street. “The hurdles for home charging are still too high for tenants, owners of apartments and residents who park on the streets,” says Krispin Romang, managing director of the Swiss eMobility association.

Switzerland is implementing new laws designed to slash carbon emissions by 50% in 2030 as compared to 1990. They include tightening tailpipe emission standards to make them similar to those imposed by the EU. Fines imposed by the new law will be used to pay for charging infrastructure upgrades.

The Takeaway

The Financial Times may harrumph about government subsidies and regulations, but they are working. If they smack of socialism to some, so be it. Socialism is preferable to extinction any day.

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Extreme E Sustainability Award Goes to Team X44 (Video)

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X44 have become the first winners of the Extreme E Sustainability Award after topping the standings in the series’ inaugural Count Us In Challenge. The Extreme E Count Us In Challenge is a simple way for people to take practical and impactful steps that reduce their carbon footprint — and challenge governments, cities, and businesses to accelerate progress on climate action.

Extreme E aims to accelerate the adoption of clean and electrified transport to help protect people and the planet, with the Extreme E Count Us In Challenge also supporting the UN’s Race To Zero campaign. Race to Zero is a global campaign to rally leadership and support from businesses, cities, regions, investors for a healthy, resilient, zero carbon recovery that prevents future threats, creates decent jobs, and unlocks inclusive, sustainable growth.

Extreme E is a challenging racing expedition, a global odyssey, taking 100% electric SUVs to extreme environments. They have a single goal in mind — to highlight the destruction of our planet and to inspire people, companies, and locations to urgently change course and go on the positive journey we must all take. The racing series hopes to inspire everyone to change course for the good of our home planet.

Fans vote for the Extreme E Sustainability Award by supporting their favorite team through making healthier lifestyle choices for themselves and the planet. They set up a profile with Count Us In to keep track of the carbon they are saving. The tracking also adds steps to all the steps people make on the Extreme E platform.

Alejandro Agag, founder and CEO of Extreme E, congratulated X44 as the winners of the Extreme E Sustainability Award via the series’ first-ever Count Us In Challenge. “Sport is an incredible platform to not only raise awareness of the climate crisis,” Agag said, “the single biggest threat to our planet today, but also inspire action to tackle it. At Extreme E we will continue to push the boundaries and shine a spotlight on the issues we face, along with the need to act now to help protect our futures.”

Lewis Hamilton, founder of X44, explained that Extreme E, as a new sustainability initiative, “brings my vision for a more sustainable and equal world to life. Extreme E really appealed to me because of its environmental focus. Every single one of us has the power to make a difference, and it means so much to me that I can use my love of racing, together with my love for our planet, to have a positive impact.”

Fan support for X44 through the Extreme E Sustainability Award must come as solace to Hamilton, who lost the Formula 1 driving championship in 2021 when the FIA chose the final race and title winner. Mercedes conceded that “it’s going to take a long time for us to digest” the Formula 1 end-of-2021 season results, revealing that “we will never overcome the pain and the distress” that the final lap decisions caused.

What’s Behind the Extreme E Sustainability Award

Motor racing is a constant hub of transport innovation, and Extreme E represents the latest clean technology, running X Prixs in some of Earth’s most remote and stunning locations while raising awareness for the climate crisis. Extreme E and Count Us In joined forces ahead of Season 1 to launch the Extreme E Count Us In Challenge — a campaign using the power of sport and the excitement of motor racing to inspire fans to take practical steps on climate change. The sport for purpose series asked fans to take real pledges to lead a less carbon intensive lifestyle to reduce their carbon footprint.

The Extreme E Count Us In Challenge includes a variety of actions available to fans to contribute towards a greener future, including not using single-use plastic, walking and cycling more, eating more plant-based foods and driving an electric vehicle. Each step is attributed to the fans’ favorite team, and the team with the most steps at the end of Season 1 would win the inaugural Extreme E Sustainability Award.

The specific steps that Extreme E recommends to its fans are:

Drive electric: Make your next vehicle purchase electric.
Fly less: Reduce your air travel to dramatically reduce your carbon pollution.
Grow some trees: Grow trees to capture and store carbon.
Speak up at work: Come together with colleagues to make change at a bigger scale.
Volunteer: Donate your time and skills.
Dial it down: Turn down the heating in your home by a degree or two.
Switch your home: Move your home to a green energy supplier.
Tell your politicians: Ask your politicians to act or invest in infrastructure to support a step.
Cut food waste: Reduce the amount of food that is wasted or thrown away in your home.
Eat sustainable fish: Eat sustainably sourced fish.
Drink tap water: Stop buying bottled water.
Walk and cycle more: Travel by foot or bike whenever possible.
Talk to friends: Start a conversation about Count Us In and encourage others to take a step.
Buy sustainable palm oil: Look for products that use sustainable palm oil.
Use less plastic: Make plastic-free choices to reduce carbon pollution.
Eat more plants: Reduce the amount of meat in your daily diet.

The greatest fan support for the Count Us In Challenge was achieved by X44, who claimed the Award with 792 steps pledged, with JBXE (749 steps), and Rosberg X Racing (RXR) (422 steps) completing the top three. In total, the Extreme E Count Us In Challenge inspired 1,231 fans to take 3,207 steps saving 1,241,223 KG CO2.

Final Thoughts

Extreme E will continue on to Season 2 to go further in taking climate action and increasing fan interest in the Count Us In Challenge. In 2022, Extreme E will continue to race across the world’s most remote environments to demonstrate the performance and benefits of electric vehicles and clean technology, while highlighting the impact that climate change is already having on these ecosystems, such as melting ice caps, deforestation, desertification, retreating mountain glaciers, and rising sea levels.

Sébastien Loeb, X44, said: “I was very happy to learn that X44 won the Extreme E Sustainability Award for 2021. I joined the team hoping to discover more about the environment while doing what I love, and I have learned so much from the series and the different places we visited — in fact, I even bought my first electric car last year! To know that our fans have come on this journey with us and are making their own commitment to have a positive impact on the planet is inspiring, and I feel good about what we can achieve when we work together.”

When teams and fans take meaningful, simple steps in their own daily lives, they not only reduce their own carbon emissions — they’re added to a growing movement of people and communities showing leaders it’s time to accelerate progress on climate action.

Extreme E Season 2 begins in Neom, Saudi Arabia (19-20 February), before heading to Sardinia, Italy (7-8 May), Senegal or Scotland (9-10 July), Antofagasta, Chile (10-11 September), and Punta Del Este, Uruguay (26-27 November).

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