Monthly Archives: December 2019

The Privilege of Polluting v. Decarbonization

The Paris climate agreement of 2015 calls for the Earth’s temperature to increase by no more than 2°C over pre-industrial levels, and ideally by as little as 1.5°C. Already, temperatures are 1°C above the pre-industrial, and they continue to climb, driven for the most part by CO2 emissions of 43bn tonnes a year. To stand a good chance of scraping under the 2°C target, let alone the 1.5°C target, just by curtailing greenhouse-gas emissions would require cuts far more stringent than the large emitting nations are currently offering.

Recognising this, the agreement envisages a future in which, as well as hugely reducing the amount of CO2 put into the atmosphere, nations also take a fair bit out. Scenarios looked at by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last year required between 100bn and 1trn tonnes of CO2 to be removed from the atmosphere by the end of the century if the Paris goals were to be reached; the median value was 730bn tonnes–that is, more than ten years of global emissions…

If you increase the amount of vegetation on the planet, you can suck down a certain amount of the excess CO2 from the atmosphere. Growing forests, or improving farmland, is often a good idea for other reasons, and can certainly store some carbon. But it is not a particularly reliable way of doing so. Forests can be cut back down, or burned—and they might also die off if, overall, mitigation efforts fail to keep the climate cool enough for their liking. …But the biggest problem with using new or restored forests as carbon stores is how big they have to be to make a serious difference. The area covered by new or restored forests in some of the ipcc scenarios was the size of Russia. And even such a heroic effort would only absorb on the order of 200bn tonnes of CO2 ; less than many consider necessary.

The world has about 2,500 coal-fired power stations, and thousands more gas-fired stations, steel plants, cement works and other installations that produce industrial amounts of CO2. Just 19 of them offer some level of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), according to the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute (GCSI), an advocacy group. All told, roughly 40m tonnes of CO2 are being captured from industrial sources every year—around 0.1% of emissions.

Why so little? There are no fundamental technological hurdles; but the heavy industrial kit needed to do CCS at scale costs a lot. If CO2 emitters had to pay for the privilege of emitting to the tune, say, of $100 a tonne, there would be a lot more interest in the technology, which would bring down its cost. In the absence of such a price, there are very few incentives or penalties to encourage such investment. The greens who lobby for action on the climate do not, for the most part, want to support CCS. They see it as a way for fossil-fuel companies to seem to be part of the solution while staying in business, a prospect they hate. Electricity generators have seen the remarkable drop in the price of wind and solar and invested accordingly.

Equinor, formerly Statoil, a Norwegian oil company, has long pumped CO2 into a spent field in the North Sea, both to prove the technology and to avoid the stiff carbon tax which Norway levies on emissions from the hydrocarbon industry. As a condition on its lease to develop the Gorgon natural-gas field off the coast of Australia, Chevron was required to strip the CO2 out of the gas and store it. The resultant project is, at 4m tonnes a year, bigger than any other not used for EOR. But at the same time, what the Gorgon project stores in a year, the world emits in an hour.

In Europe, the idea has caught on that the costs of operating big CO2 reservoirs like Gorgon’s will need to be shared between many carbon sources. This is prompting a trend towards clusters that could share the storage infrastructure. Equinor, Shell and Total, two more oil companies, are proposing to turn CCS into a service industry in Norway. For a fee they will collect CO2 from its producers and ship it to Bergen before pushing it out through a pipeline to offshore injection points. In September Equinor announced that it had seven potential customers, including Air Liquide, an industrial-gas provider, and ArcelorMittal, a steelmaker.

Similar projects for filling up the emptied gasfields of the North Sea are seeking government support in the Netherlands, where Rotterdam’s port authority is championing the idea, and in Britain, where the main movers are heavy industries in the north, including Drax.

The European Union has also recently announced financial support for CCS, in the form of a roughly €10bn innovation fund aimed at CC S, renewables and energy storage. The fund’s purpose is not to decarbonise fossil-fuel energy, but rather to focus on CCS development for the difficult-to-decarbonise industries such as steel and cement.

Excerpts from, The Chronic Complexity of Carbon Capture, Economist, Dec. 7, 2019

Making Friends with Radioactive Waste: the Nuclear Dump of Moscow

Russian environmental activists and residents are sounding the alarm (in December 2019) over government plans to build a motorway near a Soviet-era radioactive waste site in southeast Moscow that they fear could spew dangerous particles into the air.  The 34-km (21-mile) road, which city authorities say is safe and will help ease traffic, is set to pass the Moscow Polymetal Plant and a fenced-off site where it disposed of radioactive substances decades ago.  Vasily Desyatkov, a senior city construction official, said surface and underground tests carried out where the foundations of the road were due to be laid had turned back normal readings that show there is no risk.

But that has not placated activists who have led a series of protests in recent months.  “It could lead to the release of radionuclides contained in the soil which will be dispersed with the dust. They will be spread everywhere – on people’s feet, car wheels, anything,” said Igor, a protester.

The site, the Moscow Polymetals Plant’s slag heap, is Just 13 kilometers from the Kremlin and steps from Kolomenskoye Park, a popular spot for Muscovites to ski in winter and picnic in summer, the Moskvorechye-Saburovo hill is the most contaminated of the bunch, according to Radon, a government agency tasked with locating and clearing radioactive waste. A legacy of a rushed Soviet effort to begin nuclear research as the race to build an atomic bomb gained steam in the 1930s, the hill is one of many contaminated sites across Russia …

Moskvorechye-Saburovo District Moscow

It contains tens of thousands of tons of radioactive waste left over after the extraction of thorium and uranium from ore. The factory ceased production of metals in 1996 for “environmental reasons,” according to its website — it now produces weapons and military equipment — and the dump is now a hill half a kilometer wide sloping down to the banks of the Moscow River.  City officials had been considering a full-scale clean-up for years, but never rubber-stamped a plan due to the risky location of the site near a source of water for Moscow’s southern suburbs. 

“Operations in such an environment are a serious engineering challenge — one incautious step, and radioactive soil gets into the river,” said Alexander Barinov, Radon’s chief engineer for Moscow…. “Full decontamination by removing all of the radioactive waste is simply impossible,” he added, noting that Radon every year conducts “a kind of therapy” to ensure the site’s safety — in short, dumping dirt on top of the waste to keep it buried after topsoil runoff each spring. 

Excerpts from Russians protest over plans to build road near Soviet-era radioactive waste site, Reuters, Dec. 10, 2019; Will a Road Through a Nuclear Dumping Ground Result in ‘Moscow’s Chernobyl’?, Moscow Times, July 16, 2019

Cleaning Up Space Junk

A four-armed robotic junk collector will be launched into space by the European Space Agency in what it says will be the first mission to remove an item of debris from orbit. About 3,500 defunct satellites and an estimated 750,000 smaller fragments are orbiting the Earth at an average speed of 20,000km/h.  Unless a clear-up operation is mounted, the chances of collisions will escalate as thousands more satellites are put into orbit.

The ClearSpace-1 mission, scheduled for launch in 2025, will cost €120m and will grab a single piece of junk. But the agency hopes the mission will pave the way for a wide-reaching clear-up operation, with Esa’s director general calling for new rules that would compel those who launch satellites to take responsibility for removing them from orbit once they are retired from use.  “Imagine how dangerous sailing the high seas would be if all the ships ever lost in history were still drifting on top of the water,” said Jan Wörner, Esa’s director general. “That is the current situation in orbit, and it cannot be allowed to continue.”

The target for ClearSpace-1 is a piece of junk called Vespa, which was left in an orbit around 800km above the Earth by ESA’s Vega launcher in 2013. Vespa weighs 100kg – around the size of a small satellite – and was selected because it has a simple shape and sturdy construction, which make it unlikely to fragment when it is grabbed. The “chaser” ClearSpace space probe will be launched into the target orbit where it will track down Vespa, grab it using a quartet of robotic arms and drag it out of orbit, with Vespa and the chaser both burning up in the atmosphere on the way down to Earth. A future ambition is to create a clear-up robot that could eject junk into the atmosphere, before continuing to capture and de-orbit other pieces of junk.

European Space Agency to launch space debris collector in 2025, Guardian, Dec. 9, 2019

The Carbon-Neutral Europe and its Climate Bank

The European Union (EU) Green Deal, a  24-page document reads like a list of vows to transform Europe into a living demonstration of how a vast economy can both prosper and prioritise the health of the planet. It covers everything from housing and food to biodiversity, batteries, decarbonised steel, air pollution and, crucially, how the EU will spread its vision beyond its borders to the wider world….The plan is large on ambition, but in many places frustratingly vague on detail.

Top billing goes to a pledge to make Europe carbon-neutral by 2050….Current policies on renewable energy and energy efficiency should already help to achieve 45-48% cuts by 2030. Green NGOs  would like to see the EU sweat a bit more and strive for 65% cuts by 2030, which is what models suggest is needed if the bloc is to do its share to limit global warming to 1.5-2ºC.

All this green ambition comes at a price. The commission estimates that an additional €175bn-€290bn ($192bn-$320bn) of investment will be needed each year to meet its net-zero goals. Much of this will come from private investors. One way they will be encouraged to pitch in is with new financial regulations. On December 5th, 2019 EU negotiators struck a provisional agreement on what financial products are deemed “green”. Next year large European companies will be forced to disclose more information about their impacts on the environment, including carbon emissions. These measures, the thinking goes, will give clearer signals to markets and help money flow into worthy investments.

Another lever is the European Investment Bank, a development bank with about €550bn on its balance-sheet, which is to be transformed into a climate bank. Already it has pledged to phase out financing fossil fuels by 2021. By 2025 Werner Hoyer, its boss, wants 50% of its lending to go to green projects, up from 28% today, and the rest to go to investments aligned with climate-change goals. Some of that money will flow into a “just transition” fund, worth €100bn over seven years. Job losses are an unavoidable consequence of decarbonising Europe’s economy; the coal industry alone employs around 250,000 people, mainly in eastern Europe. The fund will try to ease some of this pain, and the political opposition it provokes.

The Green Deal goes beyond the scope of previous climate policies. One area it enters with gusto is trade. Under the commission’s proposals, the eu will simply refuse to strike new trade deals with countries that fail to comply with the Paris agreement’s requirement that signatories must increase the scale of their decarbonisation pledges, known as “nationally determined contributions” or NDCs, every five years. That would mean no new deals with America while Donald Trump is president; it is set to drop out of the Paris agreement late in 2020. And, because the first round of enhanced ndcs is due next year, it would put pressure on countries that are dragging their feet on these, of which there are dozens—including China and India.

The deal also sketches out plans for a carbon border-adjustment levy. Under the eu’s emission-trading scheme, large industries pay a fee of about €25 for every tonne of carbon dioxide they emit. Other regions have similar schemes with different carbon prices. A border-adjustment mechanism would level the playing field.

Excerpts from, The EU’s Green Deal, Economist, Dec. 2019

Cutting Trees, Digging Gold and Mercury Pollution – Amazon

The past two decades have seen a sharp increase in illegal and informal gold mining in Peru‘s southern Amazon region of Madre de Dios. These small-scale operations typically involve cutting down all of the trees in a particular area, digging a large pit and then using mercury to extract gold from the excavated soil… The mercury binds to any gold in the soil, creating a large chunk that can be easily removed. This chunk is then burned, evaporating and releasing the mercury into the air while leaving behind pure gold

Besides releasing mercury into the atmosphere, miners typically add three to four times more mercury… than is actually needed. While this ensures all of the gold is extracted, it also means there is a large amount of leftover mercury in the slurry that is inevitably dumped back into the excavated pit. And because the whole process started with the clearing of trees, there’s nothing to stop the mercury-laden soil from eroding into nearby rivers.

“This means mining practices can hit people three times with mercury — once from direct contact, once from atmospheric transport and deposition, and once from soil mercury mobilization due to land clearing,” said William Pan,Professor of Population Studies at Duke. “The scenarios we run demonstrate that even if mining were to end today, since vegetation is unlikely to return for several decades, the cleared land will continue to release mercury.”

For more details see Duke University

Excerpts from Deforestation, erosion exacerbate mercury spikes near Peruvian gold mining, Science Daily, Dec. 12, 2019

The Nuclear Fuel Bank is Up and Running

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) received in December 2019 the second and final shipment of low-enriched uranium (LEU) at a purpose-built facility in Kazakhstan housing the IAEA LEU Bank, which was established to provide assurance to countries about the supply of nuclear fuel. The delivery completes the planned stock of the material that the IAEA LEU Bank will hold, following the first shipment in October 2019.

Kazakhstan’s JSC National Atomic Company Kazatomprom – the world’s largest producer of natural uranium – delivered 28 cylinders of LEU to the facility at the Ulba Metallurgical Plant (UMP) in the city of Ust-Kamenogorsk. The uranium originated from Kazakhstan and was enriched at a facility in neighbouring Russia before the LEU was transported by train to the site in eastern Kazakhstan, where it was checked and officially accepted by IAEA experts.

Owned by the IAEA and hosted by Kazakhstan, the IAEA LEU Bank is one of the Agency’s most ambitious undertakings since it was founded in 1957.  The establishment and operation of the IAEA LEU Bank are fully funded by voluntary contributions from IAEA Member States and other donors totalling US $150 million, covering estimated costs for at least 20 years of operation. Donors include the Nuclear Threat Initiative, the United States, the European Union, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Norway and Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan contributed also in kind by hosting the IAEA LEU Bank.

The Bank operates with er assurance of supply mechanisms established including a guaranteed physical reserve of LEU maintained by the Russian Federation at the International Uranium Enrichment Centre in Angarsk, Russian Federation, and an assurance of supply guaranty by the United Kingdom for supplies of LEU enrichment services.

Globally, there are around 450 nuclear power reactors in operation today, supplying about 10 percent of the world’s electricity and one-third of all low-carbon electricity. Fifty-two additional nuclear power reactors are currently under construction.

Excerpts from Second Shipment of Low Enriched Uranium Completes IAEA LEU Bank, IAEA Press Release, Dec. 10, 2019

How to Lose Track of 250 barrels of Radioactive Waste — Los Alamos National Laboratory

The Triad National Security,*** the company in charge of Los Alamos National Laboratory’s (LANL) operations in 2018 lost track of 250 barrels of mixed hazardous waste on their way to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad. Mixed waste contains low-level radioactive waste and other hazardous materials. Failing to track such a high volume of waste is an egregious error that falls in line with the lab’s long history of serious missteps.  “The fact that LANL has mischaracterized, misplaced, mis-inventoried — or whatever — 250 barrels of waste is pretty astounding,” said Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico.

Still, Triad has committed less than a tenth of the violations that its predecessor, Los Alamos National Security LLC, used to average in a given year.  A disastrous “kitty litter” incident happened under Los Alamos National Security, in which a waste barrel was packaged in error with a volatile blend of organic cat litter and nitrate salts, causing the container to burst and leak radiation at the Southern New Mexico storage site. WIPP closed for almost three years, and the cleanup cost about $2 billion.

***Triad is a public service oriented, national security science organization equally owned by its three founding members: Battelle Memorial Institute (Battelle), The Texas A&M University System (TAMUS), and The Regents of the University of California (UC).

Excerpts from Scott Wyland State report: LANL lost track of 250 barrels of nuke waste, Santa Fe New Mexican, Dec. 9, 2019