Monthly Archives: April 2019

Armed Attack on Truck Carrying Nuclear Fuel: Brazil

Armed men shot at members of a convoy transporting uranium to one of Brazil’s two working nuclear power plants on a coastal road in Rio de Janeiro state on March 19, 2019 police and the company managing the plant said.  They said the truck carrying the nuclear fuel and its police escort came under attack when it was passing by the town of Frade, about 30 km (19 miles) from Angra dos Reis, where the reactor is located.  Policemen guarding the convoy returned the attackers’ fire, police said. They said there were no injuries or arrests and the armed men fled.

Excerpts from Brazilian nuclear plant uranium convoy attacked by armed men: police, Reuters, Africa, Mar. 19, 2019

How to Strengthen the Immune System of Plants: biodiversity

In the past 150 years, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen from 280 parts per million (ppm) to 410 ppm. For farmers this is mixed news. Any change in familiar weather patterns caused by the atmospheric warming this rise is bringing is bound to be disruptive. But more carbon dioxide means more fuel for photosynthesis and therefore enhanced growth—sometimes by as much as 40%. And for those in temperate zones, rising temperatures may bring milder weather and a longer growing season. (In the tropics the effects are not so likely to be benign.) What is not clear, though, and not much investigated, is how rising CO2 levels will affect the relation between crops and the diseases that affect them…

Plant biology is altered substantially by a range of environmental factors. This makes it difficult to predict what effect a changing climate will have on particular bits of agriculture. Carbon dioxide is a case in point. It enhances growth of many plants but,  it also shifts the defences to favour some types of disease over others.

To make matters even more complicated, evidence is mounting that changes in temperature and water availability also shift plant immune responses. André Velásquez and Sheng Yang He, at Michigan State University, wrote an extensive review on the warfare between plants and diseases in Current Biology in 2018. They noted that though some valuable crops, such as potatoes and rice, experience less disease as moisture levels increase, this is not the case for most plants. High humidity, in general, favours the spread of botanical diseases. The same can be said for temperature—with some diseases, like papaya ringspot virus, thriving in rising temperatures while others, for example potato cyst, are weakened.

The problems are daunting, then, but there is a way to try to solve them… Genes which grant resistance to diseases that might become severe in the future need to be tracked down. Modern crops have been streamlined by artificial selection to be excellent at growing today. This means that they have the genes they need to flourish when faced with the challenges expected from current conditions, but nothing more. Such crops are thus vulnerable to changes in their environment.  One way to find genes that may alter this state of affairs is to look to crops’ wild relatives. Uncossetted by farmers, these plants must survive disease by themselves—and have been fitted out by evolution with genes to do so. Borrowing their dna makes sense. But that means collecting and cataloguing them. This is being done, but not fast enough. The International Centre for Tropical Agriculture, a charity which works in the area, reckons that about 30% of the wild relatives of modern crops are unrepresented in gene banks, and almost all of the rest are underrepresented….

[This is becuase] most countries are, rightly, protective of their genetic patrimony. If money is to be made by incorporating genes from their plants into crops, they want to have a share of it. It is therefore incumbent on rich countries to abide by rules that enable poor ones to participate in seed collecting without losing out financially. Poor, plant-rich countries are in any case those whose farmers are most likely to be hurt by global warming. It would be ironic if that were made worse because genes from those countries’ plants were unavailable to future-proof the world’s crops.

Excerpts from Blocking the Road to Rusty Death: Climate Change and Crop Disease, Economist,  Apr. 20, 2019

Suing and Wining: Indigenous People, Ecuador

Hunter-gatherers in the Amazon sought in court on in April 2019 to stop Ecuador’s government auctioning their land to oil companies, as tension mounts over the future of the rainforest…The Waorani said the government did not properly consult them in 2012 over plans to auction their land to oil companies.

“We live on these lands and we want to continue to live there in harmony. We will defend them. Our fight is that our rights are respected,” said Nemonte Nenquimo, a leader of the 2,000-strong Waorani….Ecuador is pushing to open up more rainforest and develop its oil and gas reserves in the hope of improving its sluggish economy and cutting its high fiscal deficit and foreign debt…

The constitution gives the government the right to develop energy projects and extract minerals on any land, regardless of who owns it, but requires that communities are consulted first and are properly informed about any projects and their impact. Laws to regulate the consultation process have yet to be introduced – although the court case could push the government to do this, said Brian Parker, a lawyer with campaign group Amazon Frontlines, which is supporting the Waorani…

The government announced last year that it had divided swathes of forest up into blocs for auction, one of which – bloc 22 – covers the Waorani’s ancestral lands, raising the specter of pollution and an end to their way of life.  In two landmark cases in 2018, local courts sided with indigenous communities who said the government had failed to inform them before designating their land for mineral exploitation….The Inter-American Court of Human Rights also ruled in 2012 that Ecuador had violated its Sarayaku Amazonian community’s right to prior consultation before drillers started exploration on their lands in the late 1990s.

Excerpts Ecuador’s hunter-gatherers in court over oil drilling in Amazon, Reuters, Apr. 11, 2019

The World in its Pocket: Saudi Arabia as a Nuclear Power

New satellite imagery shows that construction on an experimental nuclear  reactor in Saudi Arabia  is making”expeditious” progress — just three months after the Kingdom announced plans to build it…  The Kingdom has been open about its nuclear program with the IAEA, which sent a team to Saudi Arabia last July to check on building plans. It has repeatedly pledged that the program is peaceful. But Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said last year that “without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.”
 
Also raising concern among industry experts and some in Congress is the Saudi insistence that it should be allowed to produce its own nuclear fuel, rather than import it under strict conditions.  In an interview last year, Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al Falih said: “It’s not natural for us to bring enriched uranium from a foreign country to fuel our reactors,” citing the country’s uranium reservess.  Saudi Arabia went public with its nuclear ambitions nine years ago, but the plans have gone into overdrive as part of the Crown Prince’s “Vision 2030” — a strategy to wean Saudi Arabia off its reliance on oil and diversify both the economy and its energy mix.  Companies that help Saudi Arabia with its nuclear ambitions  are US, China, Russia, France and South Korea. Saudi Arabia has also signed agreements with the China National Nuclear Corporation for exploring uranium reserves in the Kingdom

In heated exchanges at the Senate Armed Services committee at the end of March, US Energy Secretary Rick Perry said that if the United States did not cooperate with the Saudis, they would look to Russia or China to develop their nuclear industry.  “I can assure you that those two countries don’t give a tinker’s damn about nuclear non-proliferation,” Perry said.

Excerpts from Saudi nuclear program accelerates, raising tensions in a volatile region, CNN, Apr. 7, 2019

Never-Ending CleanUp: Fukushima

 The operator of Japan’s wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant completed in April 2019 the removal of the first fuel rods from a cooling pool high up in a badly damaged reactor building, a rare success in the often fraught battle to control the site.  The batch of 22 unused fuel assemblies, which each contain 50-70 of the fuel rods, was transferred by a trailer to a safer storage pool, the last day of a four-day operation, Tokyo Electric Power Co, or Tepco, said in a statement.

The company must carefully pluck more than 1,500 brittle and potentially damaged assemblies from the unstable reactor No.4., the early stages of a decommissioning process following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that wrecked the site.

Tepco estimates removing the damaged assemblies from reactor No.4 alone will take a year. Some experts say that timeline is ambitious.  Still, it is an urgent operation. They are being stored 18 meters (59 feet) above ground level in a building that has buckled and tilted and could collapse if another quake strikes.  Carefully plucking the damaged fuel assemblies from the reactor building is being seen as a test of Tepco’s ability to move ahead with decommissioning the whole facility – a task likely to cost tens of billions of dollars and take decades.  The removal has to be conducted under water. If the rods are exposed to air or if they break, huge amounts of radioactive gases could be released into the atmosphere. Each assembly weighs around 300 kg (660 pounds) and is 4.5 meters (15 feet) long.  The hazardous removal operation has been likened by Arnie Gundersen, a veteran U.S. nuclear engineer and director of Fairewinds Energy Education, to trying to pull cigarettes from a crushed pack

Exerpts from In Start of Long Operation, Fukushima Removes First Fuel Rods, Reuters, April 2019

5,000 Eyes in the Sky: environmental monitoring

The most advanced satellite to ever launch from Africa will soon be patrolling South Africa’s coastal waters to crack down on oil spills and illegal dumping.  Data from another satellite, this one collecting images from the Texas portion of a sprawling oil and gas region known as the Permian Basin, recently delivered shocking news: Operators there are burning off nearly twice as much natural gas as they’ve been reporting to state officials.

With some 5,000 satellites now orbiting our planet on any given day…. They will help create a constantly innovating industry that will revolutionize environmental monitoring of our planet and hold polluters accountable…

A recent study by Environmental Defense Fund focused on natural gas flares from the wells in the Permian Basin, located in Western Texas and southeastern New Mexico. Our analysis proved that the region’s pollution problem was much larger than companies had revealed.  A second study about offshore gas flaring in the Gulf of Mexico, published by a group of scientists in the Geophysical Research Letters, showed that operators there burn off a whopping 40% of the natural gas they produce.

Soon a new satellite will be launching that is specifically designed not just to locate, but accurately measure methane emissions from human-made sources, starting with the global oil and gas industry.  MethaneSAT, a new EDF affiliate unveiled in 2018, will launch a future where sensors in space will find and measure pollution that today goes undetected. This compact orbital platform will map and quantify methane emissions from oil and gas operations almost anywhere on the planet at least weekly.

Excerpts from Mark Brownstein, These pollution-spotting satellites are just a taste of what’s to come, EDF, Apr. 4, 2019

Why Texas Loves Nuclear Waste

A proposal to take in more out-of-state waste at a West Texas radioactive waste disposal site has encountered an unlikely argument against it: that it can harm the booming oil and gas industry.  Waste Control Specialists is asking state lawmakers for permission to take in more low-level radioactive waste — such as rags, syringes and protective clothing from nuclear plants or hospitals — from outside of Texas for disposal at its Andrews County facility near the Texas-New Mexico border.

Environmental groups have long opposed radioactive waste at the site, which they say could jeopardize groundwater.  Environmentalists at the hearing were joined by Tommy Taylor, director of oil and gas development for Fasken Oil and Ranch, which operates in Andrews County.  Quoting from a handbook of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Taylor said radioactive waste dumps should be sited away from “land with exportable minerals and energy resources.”  “Don’t put it in an oilfield,” he said. “The oil and gas resources of the Permian Basin are too important for the security of the state of Texas and the United States to put it at risk with storing spent fuel rod casks in this region.”

Spent fuel is not designated as low-level waste, but he said he worried that designation could change.  It’s unusual for a representative of an oil and gas company to publicly criticize at the Capitol another segment of the energy industry…

But If Waste Control Specialists becomes insolvent the state might have to take control of the facility.  The legislation poposed by Texas lawmakers lifts the cap on the amount of out-of-state, low-level waste the company can accept at the 8.9 million cubic feet-capacity site from 30 percent to 60 percent.  The company currently pays six Austin lobbyists as much as $240,000 to persuade lawmakers of the wisdom of its plans….Waste Control Specialists’ partnership with Orano USA, called Interim Storage Partners LLC, has asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for permission to accept used nuclear fuel — high-level waste — at the Andrews facility.  Waste Control Specialists, which already disposes of other kinds of radioactive waste at its site in Andrews County, has been trying to position itself as a short-term alternative to Yucca Mountain, the Nevada site long ago selected by the federal government for storage of radioactive waste. Yucca had been bedeviled by decades of political quarrels, even as radioactive waste has piled up at the country’s nuclear power plants.

Excerpt from Asher Price, Radioactive waste site seeks more out-of-state material, Statesman, Mar. 30, 2019

Who Bears the Costs of Technology? Lynas and Hazardous Waste from Rare Earths

Companies and governments around the world are anxiously watching the fate of a sprawling industrial facility 30 kilometers north of this city on the east coast of peninsular Malaysia.The 100-hectare Lynas Advanced Materials Plant (LAMP) produces 10% of the world’s output of rare earth oxides (REOs), minerals needed in technologies including mobile phones, hard drives, fiber optic cables, surgical lasers, and cruise missiles. Lynas, an Australian company, imports concentrated ores from mines on Mount Weld in Australia and refines them in Malaysia, where costs are lower; it sells REOs—which include cerium compounds, used in catalytic converters, and neodymium, critical to permanent magnets—to Japan, the United States, and other countries. The plant produced almost 18,000 tons of REOs in 2018.

Now, the LAMP faces closure, barely 7 years after it opened. Environmental groups have long opposed the storage on the site of slightly radioactive waste from the extraction process, and they found a sympathetic ear in a new government elected in May 2018. In December 2018, the government demanded that the facility ship its radioactive waste back to Australia if it wants to renew its operating license, which expires on 2 September. On 12 March 2019overnment task force to help organize the shipments was announced. But the company says exporting the more than 451,000 tons of residue by the deadline is “unachievable.”

 A shutdown would be “a significant event with a ripple effect,” says Ryan Castilloux, a metals and minerals analyst at Adamas Intelligence in Amsterdam. For one thing, the shutdown would strengthen China’s position as the dominant supplier of REOs, which many countries deem a strategic risk. Japan’s electric vehicle industry, for instance, would lose its main supplier of REOs for permanent magnets; “it would have to reestablish a relationship with China after almost a decade of friction” in the REO trade, Castilloux says…. “Although rare earth oxides production worldwide is only worth several billions of dollars, it is essential for industries worth trillions,” Castilloux says.

Rare earth deposits themselves are not scare..Refining them takes lots of corrosive chemicals and generates huge amounts of residue. China was long the sole supplier; when it reduced exports in 2010, citing environmental concerns, prices jumped as much as 26-fold and major consumers scrambled for alternate sources. Lynas has become a “flagship” of REO production outside China, Castilloux says. The United States and Myanmar mine REEs as well, but they are processed in China, which today produces about 89% of the global REO output…

But in Malaysia, the waste has raised red flags. At the LAMP, concentrated ores are roasted with sulfuric acid to dissolve the rare earths and then diluted with water in a process called water leach purification, leaving a moist, pastelike residue. By September 2018, the LAMP had already produced 1.5 million tons of residue; because the ores contain thorium and uranium, almost 30% of it is slightly radioactive.  Some REO facilities elsewhere have built permanent, secure facilities to store such waste, says Julie Klinger, a geographer and expert in REO mining at Boston University; others are secretive about what they do with it.  Radioactivity isn’t the only risk…heavy metals as ickel, chromium, lead, and mercury could contaminate groundwater.

Excerpts by Yao-Hua, Radioactive waste standoff could slash high tech’s supply of rare earth elements, Science Magazine, Apr. 1, 2019

Assisted Evolution: Engineering Coral Reefs

Imagine ecologists cultivating whole new breeds of trees to restock a devastated wilderness…. Coral conservation has traditionally focused on minimizing damage from insults such as water pollution, invasive starfish, and destructive fishing or tourism. In the Caribbean, some conservationists have worked to “replant” damaged coral. But Gates and Van Oppen [two scientists]  have something more intrusive in mind. They want to try to alter the genetics of coral or the microbes that live on it. They dubb the effort “assisted evolution.”

Coral’s most remarkable characteristic—being an animal that is part plant—is also its Achilles’ heel in a hotter world. Normally, coral polyps—the individual coral organisms, which resemble a sea anemone the size of a pinhead—live in harmony with their algal partners, which help feed the polyps and give corals their bright colors. But during heat waves, the relationship sours. Overheated polyps perceive the algae as an irritant and eject them like unwanted squatters. The coral is left bleached, bone-white and starving. If the heat persists, the coral won’t take in new algae and can die.  The bond between coral and algae is complicated, however, and still not fully understood. Just 25 years ago, for example, researchers believed that coral housed just one variety of symbiotic algae. Now, they have identified hundreds. And they are just beginning to examine the role played by the coral’s microbiome, the menagerie of bacteria that inhabit a coral polyp.

Coral bleaching right.

But the complexity also offers multiple paths for scientists trying to forge a less fragile bond between coral and algae. Today, four major lines of research exist: One involves cross-breeding corals to create heat-tolerant varieties, either by mixing strains within a species or by crossing two species that would not normally interbreed. The second enlists genetic engineering techniques to tweak coral or algae. A third tries to rapidly evolve hardier strains of coral and algae by rearing them for generations in overheated lab conditions. A fourth approach, the newest, seeks to manipulate the coral’s microbiome…

In 2018, Cleves [scientist] became the first to report successfully using the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing tool on coral. CRISPR is often touted as a method for making genetically modified species. But Cleves says he isn’t interested in creating new kinds of coral. Rather, he sees CRISPR as a tool for deciphering the inner workings of coral DNA by knocking out, or disabling, genes one by one. He hopes to identify genes that might serve as “master switches” controlling how coral copes with heat and stress—knowledge that could help researchers quickly identify corals in the wild or in the laboratory that are already adapted to heat.

Either way, such efforts to re-engineer coral reefs make people such as David Wachenfeld, chief scientist for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority here, uneasy. The authority is supposed to protect the reef and regulate activities there. In the past, that meant a hands-off approach. Now, he concedes that “it is almost inconceivable that we’re not going to need these tools.” But, he adds, “That doesn’t mean I’m happy about any of this. This is crisis management.”

He ticks off a list of potential difficulties. Scientists focused on breeding heat-loving coral have to avoid weakening other key traits, such as coping with cold. Introducing a new coral on the scale needed to make a dent on a network of 2900 reefs spanning an area half the size of Texas is a daunting challenge. Even in its damaged state, the Great Barrier Reef still contains hundreds of millions of corals—enough to swamp the genetic impact of new coral species…

Could some kind of “super coral,” as some researchers have dubbed them, also run amok in delicate coral ecosystems.

Excerpts from  The Reef Builders, Science, Mar. 22, 2019

Gummy Squirrels v. Cobalt: Mining the Seabed for Real


Sometimes the sailors’ myths aren’t far off: The deep ocean really is filled with treasure and creatures most strange. For decades, one treasure—potato-size nodules rich in valuable metals that sit on the dark abyssal floor—has lured big-thinking entrepreneurs, while defying their engineers. But that could change April 2019 with the first deep-sea test of a bus-size machine designed to vacuum up these nodules.

The trial, run by Global Sea Mineral Resources (GSR), a subsidiary of the Belgian dredging giant DEME Group, will take place in the international waters of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), a nodule-rich area the width of the continental United States between Mexico and Hawaii. The Patania II collector, tethered to a ship more than 4 kilometers overhead, will attempt to suck up these nodules through four vacuums as it mows back and forth along a 400-meter-long strip.

Patantia Vessel for Deep Sea Mining by DEME

Ecologists worried about the effect of the treasure hunt on the fragile deep-sea organisms living among and beyond the nodules should get some answers, too. An independent group of scientists on the German R/V Sonne will accompany GSR’s vessel to monitor the effect of the Patania II’s traverses. The European-funded effort, called MiningImpact2, will inform regulations under development for seafloor mining,…

The nodules are abundant, and they are rich in cobalt, a costly metal important for many electronics that is now mined in the forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a conflict zone…Ideal for nodule formation, the CCZ is estimated to contain some 27 billion metric tons of the ore. But its abyssal plain is also a garden of exotic life forms. Craig Smith, a benthic ecologist at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu, has helped lead biological surveys in the CCZ that, in one case, revealed 330 species living in just 30 square kilometers, more than two-thirds of them new to science. The CCZ’s inhabitants include a giant squid worm,  green-yellow sea cucumbers that researchers called “gummy squirrels,” and a greater variety of bristle worms than ever reported before.

gummy squirrel on seabed

Mining could leave a lasting imprint on these ecosystems. In 2015, MiningImpact scientists visited the site of a 1980s experiment off Peru in which a small sledge was pulled along the bottom to simulate nodule harvesting. Three decades later, “It looked like the disturbance had taken place yesterday,” says Andrea Koschinsky… Many of the species in the deep seabed, such as corals and sponges, live right on the nodules. “They will be sucked up and are gone. You can’t go back.”Such concerns make many environmentalists wary of opening any of the deep sea to mining…

For one thing, the legal framework for mining in international waters is uncertain. Although the United Nations’s International Seabed Authority has granted contracts for exploration, it is still drafting rules that will govern commercial operations and set limits for environmental damage. The rules are unlikely to be final before 2021…

These sensors will focus on the plume of sediment the collector kicks up. The waters of the CCZ are some of the clearest in the world, and scientists have long feared that mining could spread a vast blanket of silt, hurting life far outside the mining area. Recent experiments, however, suggest most of the silt particles will clump together and fall out within a kilometer or two, Koschinsky says. But a film of finer nanoparticles might spread farther.

Excerpts from Scheme to Mine the Abyss Gets Sea Tria, Science,  Mar. 15, 2019

Facebook Denizens Unite! the right to privacy and big tech

The European Union’s (EU) approach to regulating the big tech companies draws on its members’ cultures tend to protect individual privacy. The other uses the eu’s legal powers to boost competition.  The first leads to the assertion that you have sovereignty over data about you: you should have the right to access them, amend them and determine who can use them. This is the essence of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), whose principles are already being copied by many countries across the world. The next step is to allow interoperability between services, so that users can easily switch between providers, shifting to firms that offer better financial terms or treat customers more ethically. (Imagine if you could move all your friends and posts to Acebook, a firm with higher privacy standards than Facebook and which gave you a cut of its advertising revenues.)

Europe’s second principle is that firms cannot lock out competition. That means equal treatment for rivals who use their platforms. The EU has blocked Google from competing unfairly with shopping sites that appear in its search results or with rival browsers that use its Android operating system. A German proposal says that a dominant firm must share bulk, anonymised data with competitors, so that the economy can function properly instead of being ruled by a few data-hoarding giants. (For example, all transport firms should have access to Uber’s information about traffic patterns.) Germany has changed its laws to stop tech giants buying up scores of startups that might one day pose a threat.

Ms Vestager has explained, popular services like Facebook use their customers as part of the “production machinery”. …The logical step beyond limiting the accrual of data is demanding their disbursement. If tech companies are dominant by virtue of their data troves, competition authorities working with privacy regulators may feel justified in demanding they share those data, either with the people who generate them or with other companies in the market. That could whittle away a big chunk of what makes big tech so valuable, both because Europe is a large market, and because regulators elsewhere may see Europe’s actions as a model to copy. It could also open up new paths to innovation.

In recent decades, American antitrust policy has been dominated by free-marketeers of the so-called Chicago School, deeply sceptical of the government’s role in any but the most egregious cases. Dominant firms are frequently left unmolested in the belief they will soon lose their perch anyway…By contrast, “Europe is philosophically more sceptical of firms that have market power.” ..

Tech lobbyists in Brussels worry that Ms Vestager agrees with those who believe that their data empires make Google and its like natural monopolies, in that no one else can replicate Google’s knowledge of what users have searched for, or Amazon’s of what they have bought. She sent shivers through the business in January when she compared such companies to water and electricity utilities, which because of their irreproducible networks of pipes and power lines are stringently regulated….

The idea is for consumers to be able to move data about their Google searches, Amazon purchasing history or Uber rides to a rival service. So, for example, social-media users could post messages to Facebook from other platforms with approaches to privacy that they prefer…

Excerpts from Why Big Tech Should Fear Europe, Economist, Mar. 3, 2019; The Power of Privacy, Economist, Mar. 3, 2019

Biodiversity and Respect for Human Rights

The instinctive response of many environmentalists  is to to fence off protected areas as rapidly and extensively as possible. That thought certainly dominates discussions of the Convention on Biological Diversity, the main relevant international treaty. An eight-year-old addendum to the pact calls for 17% of the world’s land surface and 10% of the ocean’s water column (that is, the water under 10% of the ocean’s surface) to be protected by 2020. Currently, those figures are 15% and 6%. Campaigners want the next set of targets, now under discussion, to aim for 30% by 2030—and even 50% by 2050. This last goal, biogeographers estimate, would preserve 85% of life’s richness in the long run.  As rallying cries go, “Nature needs half” has a ring to it, but not one that sounds so tuneful in the poor countries where much of the rhetorically required half will have to be found. Many people in such places already feel Cornered by Protected Areas.” (See also Biodiversity and Human Rights)

James Watson, chief scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society (wcs), another American charity, has an additional worry about focusing on the fence-it-off approach. If you care about the presence of species rather than the absence of humans, he warns, “‘nature needs half’ could be a catastrophe—if you get the wrong half.” Many terrestrial protected areas are places that are mountainous or desert or both. Expanding them may not translate into saving more species. Moreover, in 2009 Lucas Joppa and Alexander Pfaff, both then at Duke University in North Carolina, showed that protected areas disproportionately occupy land that could well be fine even had it been left unprotected: agriculture-unfriendly slopes, areas remote from transport links or human settlements, and so on. Cordoning off more such places may have little practical effect.

Southern Appalachians, Virginia. image from wikipedia

 In the United States it is the underprotected southern Appalachians, in the south-east of the country, that harbour the main biodiversity hotspots. The largest patches of ring-fenced wilderness, however, sit in the spectacular but barren mountain ranges of the west and north-west. In Brazil, the world’s most speciose country, the principal hotspots are not, as might naively be assumed, in the vast expanse of the Amazon basin, but rather in the few remaining patches of Atlantic rainforest that hug the south-eastern coast.

Deforestation Atlantic Rainforest in Rio de Janeiro. Image from wikipedia

Nor is speciosity the only consideration. So is risk-spreading. A team from the University of Queensland, in Australia, led by Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, has used a piece of financial mathematics called modern portfolio theory to select 50 coral reefs around the world as suitable, collectively, for preservation. Just as asset managers pick uncorrelated stocks and bonds in order to spread risk, Dr Hoegh-Guldberg and his colleagues picked reefs that have different exposures to rising water temperatures, wave damage from cyclones and so on. The resulting portfolio includes reefs in northern Sumatra and the southern Red Sea that have not previously registered on conservationists’ radar screens…

Another common finding—counterintuitive to those who take the “fence-it-all-off” approach—is that a mixed economy of conservation and exploitation can work. For example, rates of deforestation in a partly protected region of Peru, the Alto Mayo, declined by 78% between 2011 and 2017, even as coffee production increased from 20 tonnes a year to 500 tonnes.

Environmental groups can also draw on a growing body of academic research into the effective stewardship of particular species. For too long, says William Sutherland, of Cambridge University, conservationists have relied on gut feelings. Fed up with his fellow practitioners’ confident but unsubstantiated claims about their methods, and inspired by the idea of “evidence-based medicine”, he launched, in 2004, an online repository of relevant peer-reviewed literature called Conservation Evidence.  Today this repository contains more than 5,400 summaries of documented interventions. These are rated for effectiveness, certainty and harms. Want to conserve bird life threatened by farming, for example? The repository lists 27 interventions, ranging from leaving a mixture of seed for wild birds to peck (highly beneficial, based on 41 studies of various species in different countries) to marking bird nests during harvest (likely to be harmful or ineffective, based on a single study of lapwing in the Netherlands). The book version of their compendium, “What Works in Conservation”, runs to 662 pages. It has been downloaded 35,000 times.

Excerpts from How to preserve nature on a tight budget, Economist, Feb. 9, 2919

The Unquenchable Thirst for Oil

Demand for oil is rising and the energy industry, in America and globally, is planning multi-trillion-dollar investments to satisfy it. No firm embodies this strategy better than ExxonMobil, the giant that rivals admire and green activists love to hate. As our briefing explains, it plans to pump 25% more oil and gas in 2025 than in 2017. If the rest of the industry pursues even modest growth, the consequence for the climate could be disastrous.

To date politicians, particularly in America, have been reluctant to legislate for bold restrictions on carbon. That is in part thanks to ExxonMobil’s attempts to obstruct efforts to mitigate climate change. …ExxonMobil’s policies on climate change remain marred by inconsistencies. In October the company said it was giving $1m, spread over two years, to a group advocating a carbon tax. ExxonMobil maintains that a carbon tax is a transparent and fair way to limit emissions. But the sum is less than a tenth of its federal lobbying spending in 2018. Moreover, the carbon tax it favours would include protection for oil companies from climate lawsuits.

The firm is also working to reduce leaks of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, from its wells, pipelines and refineries. However the American Petroleum Institute  (API) has been a main force urging Mr Trump’s administration to ease regulations on methane emissions. The API’s other efforts include lobbying against incentives for electric cars.  ExxonMobil is not alone in trying to sway the climate debate in its direction either. Shell, Total and BP are all members of the API. Marathon Petroleum, a refiner, reportedly campaigned to ease Barack Obama’s fuel-economy standards. BP spent $13m to help block a proposal for a carbon tax in Washington state in November. The Western States Petroleum Association, whose membership includes ExxonMobil and Shell, also lobbied to defeat that tax.

While oil companies plan to grow, trends in cleaner energy are moving in the wrong direction. Investments in renewables fell as a share of the total in 2017 for the first time in three years, as spending on oil and gas climbed. In 2018 carbon emissions in America grew by 3.4% as economic activity picked up, even as coal fell out of favour. Mr Woods maintains that any change to the energy supply will be gradual. “I don’t think people can readily understand just how large the energy system is, and the size of that energy system will take time to evolve,” he argues… Out at sea, ExxonMobil is working to increase production. By next year an underwater web of pipes will connect wells on the seabed to a vast vessel. From there the oil will be transferred to smaller tankers, then to the vast infrastructure that can refine and transport it until it reaches consumers in the form of fertiliser, plastic bottles, polyester or, most likely, petrol. From beneath the ocean floor to your car’s tank, for about the price of a gallon of milk.

Excerpts from  Crude Awakening, Economist,  Feb. 9, 2019; Bigger Oil, Economist,  Feb. 9, 2019

An Umbrella for the Sun: Geo-Engineering

The idea of cooling the climate with stratospheric sunshades that would shield the planet from the sun’s warming rays moved up the international agenda in March 2019, with mixed results. On the one hand, new research suggested that it is theoretically possible to fine-tune such a shield without some of its potentially damaging consequences. Publication of this work coincided with a proposal at the biennial UN Environment Assembly (UNEA), held in Nairobi, Kenya, for an expert review of such geoengineering methods. This was the highest-level discussion of the topic so far. On the other hand, the more than 170 nations involved could not arrive at a consensus. In a fitting illustration of the heat surrounding geoengineering, the proposal was withdrawn at the eleventh hour.

Under the Paris Agreement, governments have pledged to keep average global warming to “well below” 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to try to limit maximum warming to 1.5°C. Many see these targets as wishful thinking: the planet is already roughly 1°C warmer than it was in pre-industrial times, global greenhouse gas emissions are still on the rise and national pledges to cut them fall short of what is needed to hit the 2°C target, let alone 1.5°C.

Faced with this, some think there is a need to turn down the global thermostat using geoengineering. This encompasses a range of possibilities, including technologies that suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and others that block incoming solar energy….  The unea resolution was tabled by Switzerland, and by the start of the week it had received support from most governments. It called for an expert review of the science of geoengineering,…Among the most controversial but also effective and affordable geoengineering options are planetary sunshades. By using high-flying aircraft, for instance, to spray a fine mist of mineral or man-made particles into the upper stratosphere, a portion of the sun’s incoming energy could be bounced back out into space before it gets a chance to warm the planet.  But there are challenges. Stratospheric particles eventually fall back to Earth in rain, so the effect is short-lived. A sunshade would need to be continually resupplied, which is one reason for an international governance framework. If a sunshade were allowed to dissipate while atmospheric CO2 concentrations remained high, global temperatures would rapidly shoot up, with devastating consequences in some regions of the world.  Another problem is the effect of solar geoengineering on the water cycle. Over the past decade, several studies have suggested that sunshades could disproportionately affect rainfall, bringing drought to some regions. But that argument may be oversimplified, according to the new study published in Nature Climate Change .

Position of Sunshade Relative to Earth, Moon and Sun from
http://mycgenie.seao2.info/pubs/Irvine_and_Ridgwell_2009.pdf

Switzerland’s proposal to study geo-engineering was blocked at the UNEA…Several delegates told the Economist that America and Saudi Arabia opposed the Swiss proposal to review geoengineering, preferring the issue to be assessed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is due to include something about the technologies in its next big report, expected in 2021. ..But the Swiss proposal was for a more comprehensive appraisal and one that would be delivered more quickly, by August 2020…. Indeed, there are concerns that some geoengineering methods could be unilaterally deployed by one or more nations, to the possible detriment of others.  The Americans, some said, did not appear to want to make room for conversations, let alone make decisions, about a framework for geoengineering that could restrict their future options.

Excerpts from  Sunny with Overcast Features: Geoengineering, Economist, Mar. 16, 2019

Islands are not Disappearing. They Just Suffer

Every so often comes news of islands just up and disappearing. Eight in Micronesia. Five in the Solomon Islands. One off the coast of Hokkaido, Japan. Yet there’s also been a crop of studies and researchers, led by coastal geomorphologist Paul Kench from Simon Fraser University, saying that island nations such as Tuvalu (long a poster child for the existential threat of sea level rise) not only aren’t disappearing—they’re actually growing. So how do we make sense of this? Are the low-lying islands we know today doomed? Or are we seeing some other process at work? The answer is that a million complicated things are happening all at once, and it provides a window into how hard it is to talk about what’s currently happening to the planet….

Tuvalu not sinking. Growing.

One big culprit that comes up when we talk about disappearing islands is sea level rise, of course. The Sea level was, for a few thousand years up to around the late 19th century, pretty constant, on average. Since the late 1800s, it’s been steadily rising. On average.We keep saying “on average” because sea level changes are not the same in all places. In fact, in a lot of places, the sea level is dropping.… The single largest cause of global sea level rise, right now, isn’t melting glaciers, but the phenomenon called thermal expansion.  Thermal expansion is the tendency of matter, including sea water, to change its volume in response to a change in temperature… Global temperatures have risen by about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880, with most of that in the last half-century. And that means the water already in the ocean is getting bigger…

Yes, all of this is going to have a major impact on any low-lying land the world over. But the researchers I talked to for this story don’t necessarily think that islands are disappearing right now at a higher rate than they were in past centuries. Of the independent island nations most at risk of disappearing, Tuvalu is near the top of the list. But a 2018 Paul Kench study of all 101 islands—all small and low-lying—that make up Tuvalu reported that there’s no consistency in what is happening there at all. About three quarters of the islands actually grew in size, to one quarter that shrank, over the past 40 years. Overall, during this time period, Tuvalu grew almost three percent. This is not to say that Tuvalu isn’t in a period of intense crisis right now, because the country certainly is. But disappearing—which is a very specific thing—might not be the cause of that crisis, at least not today…. [It is imporant] to  realize that the impacts of the direction that global climate is headed in are simply not going to be the same everywhere.

Paul Kench’s work—which ran counter to the narrative that the days of the low-lying, habitable islands that we know are gone—angered some, who see it as unhelpful to the very real plight of Tuvalu and other South Pacific island nations. But Kench notes that the mere disappearance of some islands shouldn’t be the whole story. Those harsher and more frequent storms send waves of salt water inland—sometimes over entire islands, sometimes into fields, or into fragile island freshwater sources. Homes and infrastructure are at risk, as are the unusual plant, insect, and bird species found on small islands and nowhere else. Scientists are already exploring simply moving endemic species to more stable islands.

Excerpts from DAN NOSOWITZ, How Alarming Is It That Islands Are Just Disappearing? Atlas Obscura, Mar. 2019

An Affordable and Risk Free Way to Kill: Drones

Armed drones have become ubiquitous in the Middle East, say Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi and Justin Bronk of the Royal United Services Institute, a British think-tank, in a recent report. America has jealously guarded the export of such aircraft for fear that they might fall out of government hands, be turned on protesters or used against Israel. America has also been constrained by the Missile Technology Control Regime, an arms-control agreement signed by 35 countries, including Russia, that restricts the transfer of particularly capable missiles and drones (both rely on the same underlying technology).

China…has sold missile-toting drones to Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). All are American security partners…. Other countries, such as Israel, Turkey and Iran, have filled the gap with their own models.  America wants to muscle its way back into the market. In April 2018 the Trump administration began loosening export rules to let countries buy armed drones directly from defence companies rather than through official channels. Drones with “strike-enabling technology”, such as lasers to guide bombs to their targets, were reclassified as unarmed. American drones are costlier and require more paperwork than Chinese models, but are more capable. ..The flood of drones into the market is already making an impact—sometimes literally. Ms Tabrizi and Mr Bronk say some Middle Eastern customers see drones as an “affordable and risk-free” way to strike across borders… 

Drone Bayraktar made by Turkey

Non-state actors are unwilling to be left out of the party. The jihadists of Islamic State often used drones in Iraq and Syria. Hizbullah used drones when it hit 23 fighters linked to al-Qaeda in Syria in 2014. The Houthi drone that bombed Al-Anad looked a lot like an Iranian model. Last year the Houthis sent a similar one more than 100km (60 miles) into Saudi Arabia before it was shot down. ..

Excerpts from Predator Pricing: Weapon Sales, Economist,  Mar. 9, 2019

How to Make Broken Ships Disappear: pollution

How do you make a 10,000-tonne container ship disappear? At Alang, a small town in Gujarat, on the western coast of India  is the world’s biggest ship-breaking town. Almost a third of all retired vessels—at least 200 each year—are sent to be broken up here, at over 100 different yards stretching along 10km of sand. The industry employs some 20,000 people, almost all men who migrate from the poorer states of India’s northern Hindi-speaking belt. Taxes paid by breakers generate huge sums for the state government. Yet it is a dangerous industry for its workers and a filthy one in environmental terms.

Of 744 ships that were pulled apart worldwide last year, 518 were dismantled on beaches. Only 226 were processed “off the beach” at industrial sites designed for the purpose, according to the Shipbreaking Platform, an ngo which campaigns against beach-breaking. The majority of big shipping firms use beaches, except a tiny few such as Hapag Lloyd of Germany and Boskalis of the Netherlands.

A typical operation involves a ship being beached at low tide. Once her fittings and other resaleable parts are removed, hundreds of workers with gas blowtorches clamber over the vessel’s hull, cutting it into huge steel blocks. These are then dropped onto the beach, where they are cut up again before being sold, then rerolled for use in construction.

Apart from the danger of dropping tens of tonnes of steel from a great height, the method is immensely polluting. A review in 2015 by Litehauz, a Danish marine environmental consultancy, found that in the process of scrapping a 10,000-tonne ship at least 120 tonnes of steel becomes molten and is lost in the sea. Levels of mercury and lead, as well as oil, in Alang’s water are at least 100 times higher than at other beaches. Workers must handle asbestos and dangerous chemicals. Accidents are common. Last year 14 workers died at Alang.Alang is just one of many ship-breaking centres in South Asia. Among the others are beaches in Bangladesh (where workers reportedly include children) and Pakistan. Last year the subcontinent recycled around 90% of the world’s ships by tonnage.

Ship-breaking is concentrated in the region for three reasons. Prices for scrap steel are higher than elsewhere (90% of a ship is typically steel), thanks to demand for rerolled steel for construction. Labour costs are lower than at yards in Europe, America or Turkey (workers at Alang make up to 800 rupees, or $11, per day, and usually less) and safety and environmental regulations are much weaker. Most sellers scrap their ships in South Asia because they get better prices for them.

 Shipowners, in particular Maersk, a Danish company which is the world’s biggest shipper, are preparing to comply with them…At the Baijnath Melaram shipyard a huge crane barge sits in the water next to a stretch of “impermeable” concrete. “We used to have to winch the blocks up the beach,” says Siddharth Jain, the firm’s business manager. Now, the crane lifts blocks of steel down from the ships directly to the concrete, so that they need never touch the sand. In contrast to the yards nearby, where men in simple work clothes and no safety goggles operate blowtorches, the workers scuttling around Baijnath Melaram wear boiler suits, face masks and helmets.

Blocks of steel from recycled ships

The changes are largely down to Maersk… Around 70 more are upgrading in order to meet standards set by the Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships, an unratified treaty on ship recycling.  Maersk’s campaign is in response to new regulations in force since December 31st 2018 that require all European-flagged vessels to be recycled at shipyards approved by Brussels. Just over a third of the world’s ships fall in this category. Maersk, whose fleet is roughly 40% European-flagged, hopes that the best yards at Alang will be able to comply with the new rules. Two Indian yards have already been audited for the European certification; 11 more have applied. “If we sustain that momentum, in five, six or seven years all of Alang could be really responsible,” says John Kornerup Bang, Maersk’s sustainability chief.

But on January 30, 2019 the eu announced that the Indian yards audited will not make the list,… Ingvild Jenssen of the Shipbreaking Platform says that even Alang’s best yards are not clean enough. She argues that Maersk’s efforts merely “greenwash” a model that needs to change completely…. Not clean enough for Europe; but too expensive to compete with breakers in Bangladesh or Pakistan which have not changed at all. If that happens, the industry in Alang—and the jobs and revenue it generates—could disappear almost as quickly as the ships it dismantles.

Gadani, Pakistan

Excerpt from HIgh by the Beach: Ship Recycling, Economist, Mar. 9, 2019

The Secret Powers of Saudi Arabia — Murder not Included

In 2016 Muhammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto ruler, announced the latest stage of “Saudisation”—the replacement of foreign workers with Saudi ones. It now appears the policy does not stop at swapping out bankers and bakers, but extends to ballistic missiles.  Satellite photos analysed by researchers from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, and reported by the Washington Post, appear to show that Saudi Arabia has been building a factory for rocket engines, at an existing missile base in al-Watah, south-west of Riyadh. It seems to be configured for solid-fuel rockets, which can be launched more quickly than liquid-fuelled ones….he rocket factory was “designed, equipped and constructed by an outside entity”. Saudi Arabia has “no capacity” for such a project. The facility, he notes, closely resembles a Chinese one in Lantian.

Saudi Arabia is no newcomer to missiles. Having watched Iran and Iraq fling them at each other during the 1980s, it bought a few dozen df-3 missiles from China in 1987. It came close to unleashing them after being struck by Iraqi Scud missiles during the Gulf war in 1991. In the 2000s it probably picked up a batch of newer, more accurate Chinese df-21s.

Iran, the kingdom’s arch-rival, has been honing its missile force despite Western opposition and un rebukes, conducting 135 test launches since 1990. On December 1st, 2018  it tested one thought capable of comfortably reaching any corner of Saudi soil….Nor is Iran the only concern. Hizbullah, a Lebanese militant group nurtured and armed by Iran, has a growing arsenal of missiles; some can already reach the north-western parts of Saudi Arabia. Israel is also armed to the teeth. Though Prince Muhammad is on good terms with the Jewish state, satellite images published in 2013 reportedly showed that one of the Saudi df-3 launching pads at al-Watah was set in the direction of Tel Aviv.

Because missiles are ideal delivery systems for nuclear weapons, news of the plant has also revived worries about Saudi Arabia’s atomic intentions…Without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb,” warned Prince Muhammad last March, “we will follow suit

So the Saudis may turn to other nuclear friends. Western diplomats and spooks have long been concerned that Pakistan, whose own nuclear programme was bankrolled by Saudi Arabia, might be a ready supplier of know-how, fuel or bombs. In 1999 Saudi Arabia’s then defence minister horrified American officials by touring Pakistan’s nuclear facilities and meeting A.Q. Khan, the scientist who sold nuclear technology to North Korea, Iran and Libya. Ties remain close. Prince Muhammad was due to agree on $14bn of investment in Pakistan during a visit to the country on February 16th.  2019. ….

Excerpts from Protection rocket Saudi Arabia’s missile race, Economist, Feb. 16, 2019