Monthly Archives: March 2022

Under Chemical Attack: the Human Body

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has proposed reducing by a factor of 100,000 the tolerable daily intake of bisphenol A (BPA), an endocrine disruptor that interferes with hormone systems and has been linked to disease. The huge reduction could lead to a de facto ban on the cheap and durable material in food-related uses, such making plastic water bottler or lining metal cans. And it could mark a shift in how European regulators use research findings in setting exposure limits. Traditionally, those limits have been shaped by large studies directly linking a chemical to an increased risk of disease. In this case, however, risk assessors put greater weight on smaller studies showing low levels of BPA can cause subtle changes that could lead to future health problems. This approach, if adopted widely, could justify much lower exposure limits for other chemicals.

“It’s a big deal,” says Laura Vandenberg, an endocrinologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who calls the proposed limit “a gravestone for BPA in Europe.” Environmental and public health advocates are praising the proposal, which is open for comment until 22 February. Industry groups, however, are dismayed. Plastics Europe argues EFSA ignored relevant, older studies in setting the standard…

Bisphenol A is used in many plastics, including thermal paper for receipts, but most people are exposed through food. BPA leaches out of polycarbonates used to make bottles and food containers, for example, as well as the epoxy liners used to protect steel and aluminum cans from acidic food and beverages….

In the United States, a number of groups recently urged FDA to follow EFSA’s lead and consider new limits on BPA. Others note that people are often exposed to BPA in combination with other chemicals, which could increase the risk from low doses. F

Even if Europe adopts the new standard, public health advocates worry manufacturers will replace BPA with very similar chemicals, such as bisphenol S (BPS), that have also been linked to health effects. “We don’t want to see this assessment repeated for the BPS or BPF [bisphenol F] and need more decades of risk assessment,” says Ninja Reineke, head of science at the CHEM Trust, an advocacy group that focuses on environmental and health impacts of endocrine disruptors.

To avoid that problem, many advocates have called for regulators around the world to set limits for whole classes of related compounds, rather than consider them one by one. For now, Vandenberg says, regulators are simply playing “chemical whack-a-mole.”

Excerpts from Erik Stokstad, Europe Proposes Drastic Cut of Endocrine Disruptor in Plastic, Science, Feb, 18, 2022, at 708

Toxic Waste: Down the Toilet and into the Seas

Dumping oily wastewater into the ocean has been outlawed globally for decades, but an investigation by DW, in collaboration with the European nonprofit newsroom Lighthouse Reports and eight other European press outlets, has found that the practice is still common today, with potentially devastating effects for the environment.

Satellite imagery and data provided by the environmental group SkyTruth helped identify hundreds of potential dumps across the globe in 2021 alone. But the number of spills is most likely significantly higher because the satellites used by SkyTruth cover less than one-fifth of the world’s oceans. According to the group’s estimate, the amount of oily water dumped into the oceans this way could amount to more than 200,000 cubic meters (52.8 million gallons) annually, or roughly five times the equivalent of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska — one of the worst maritime environmental disasters.

As merchant ships make their journeys, liquids from the engine room, oil, detergents, water and other substances collect in the bottom of the vessel, the bilge. This noxious mixture, called “bilgewater,” is then stored in tanks. In a day, a single merchant ship can produce several tons of it. International regulations require that large vessels treat the bilgewater with an “oily water separator” before it is discharged into the ocean. Each liter of bilgewater pumped into the sea after treatment is permitted a maximum residual-oil proportion of 15 parts per million, or 15 milligrams of oil per liter of water (0.0005 ounces per quart), according to a limit set by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in 1973. The remaining toxic mixture is stored in tanks onboard and later discharged at harbor in port reception facilities.

All big vessels are required to have working separators. But many ships circumvent the system entirely…through a small, portable pump. “It’s very easy,” one man who had witnessed it in operation on several occasions told DW. “You can assemble this portable pump in five minutes and then detach (in) five minutes and hide (it) if someone is coming.”

The pump is used to transfer the oily water into a different tank — in most cases, the sewage tank. On the high seas, ships are allowed to dump their sewage untreated. Then, the toxic mix is quietly released into the ocean, often under the cover of night or during inclement weather, when there is a lower chance of getting caught, according to several seafarers DW talked to. At night it is harder for authorities to verify the crime, and bad weather can prevent the deployment of surveillance ships and planes… Because the illegal dumps happen at sea, it is difficult for authorities and researchers to track them. That is why satellite imagery is used to monitor the seas for pollution. When a vessel discharges oily wastewater illegally, it usually creates a spill kilometers long and with a very distinct shape.

A system set up in 2007 by the European Maritime Safety Agency, or EMSA, uses radar satellites to “see” through cloud cover and at night to identify possible spills. It alerts the respective member states when one is found…Illegal dumps “still regularly occur in European waters,” according to EMSA, and the number of spills detected and prosecuted remains low. Individual member states do not always follow up on the alerts, and, when they do, it is often not quickly enough. The longer it takes authorities to verify a spill in situ, the less likely they are to find oil, as spills begin to dissipate. In 2019, only 1.5% of spills were verified within a critical three-hour time frame. Polluters are only caught in a fraction of cases.

The satellites are also not able to monitor EU waters continuously, meaning that there is a window of several hours each day during which oil spills can go unnoticed. To get a sense of the total scope of this issue in EU waters, SkyTruth combined data and assumptions from EMSA with calculations of satellite coverage. Based on that fairly conservative estimate, the group expects that every year nearly 3,000 slicks are caused by vessels discharging mineral oil into EU waters. That averages out to more than eight per day — the majority of which go unseen by satellites.

Excerpts from Exclusive: How chronic oil pollution at sea goes unpunished, DW, Mar. 2022

Loving Oil in Any Way, Shape or Form — Damn Climate Change!

Many oil assets are ending up in the hands of private-equity (PE) firms. In the past two years alone these bought $60bn-worth of oil, gas and coal assets, through 500 transactions… Some have been multibillion-dollar deals, with giants such as Blackstone, Carlyle and KKR carving out huge oilfields, coal-fired power plants or gas grids from energy groups, miners and utilities. Many other deals, sealed by smaller rivals, get little publicity. This sits uncomfortably with the credo of many pension funds, universities and other investors in private funds, 1,485 of which, representing $39trn in assets, have pledged to divest fossil fuels. But few seem ready to leave juicy returns on the table.

As demand for oil and gas persists while dwindling investment in production limits supply, prices are rising again, boosting producers’ profits….And discounts imposed on “brown” assets by the stock market, linked to sustainability factors rather than financial… create even more pockets of opportunity…The Economist has looked at 8 PE firms that have closed fossil-fuel deals in 2020-2021 The investors in some of their latest energy-flavored vehicles include 53 pension funds, 23 universities and 32 foundations. Many are from America, such as Teacher Retirement System of Texas, the University of San Francisco and the Pritzker Traubert Foundation, but that is partly because more institutions based there disclose pe commitments. The list also features Britain’s West Yorkshire Pension Fund and China Life. Over time, some investors may decide to opt out of funding their portion of fossil-fuel deals.

But a third, yet more opaque class stands ready to step in: state-owned firms and sovereign funds operating in the shadows. Last month Saudi Aramco, the Kingdom’s national oil company, acquired a 30% stake in a refinery in Poland, and Somoil, an Angolan group, bought offshore oil assets from France’s Total. In 2020 Singapore’s GIC was part of the group that paid $10bn for a stake in an Emirati pipeline.

Excerpts from Who buys the dirty energy assets public companies no longer want?, Economist, Feb. 12, 2022

Unparalleled Generosity: How China Won the Hearts and Minds of Africa

When  it comes to building big things in Africa, China is unrivalled. Beijing-backed firms have redrawn the continent’s transport map. Thanks to China’s engineers and bankers you can hop on a train in Lagos to beat the traffic to Ibadan, drive across parts of eastern Congo in hours rather than days or fly into any one of dozens of recently spruced-up airports from Zanzibar to Zambia. Throw in everything else from skyscrapers and bridges to dams and three dozen-odd ports and it all adds up to rather a lot of mortar.

It was not always so. In 1990 American and European companies scooped up more than 85% of construction contracts on the continent. Chinese firms did not even get a mention. Now Western firms are struggling to win business in a fast-growing market. (The World Bank predicts that demand for infrastructure spending alone will be more than $300bn a year by 2040.) Africa’s population is growing faster than that of any other continent, and Africans are moving to cities faster than people elsewhere. Both these trends will drive demand. The dragon’s share will be built by Chinese firms, which in 2020 were responsible for 31% of all infrastructure projects in Africa with a value of $50m or more, according to Deloitte, a consultancy. That was up from 12% in 2013. Western firms were directly responsible for just 12% or so (compared with 37% in 2013)…

Chinese lenders are pluckier than their Western rivals. Sometimes this borders on recklessness. When Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya’s president, wanted $4.7bn to build a new railway which the World Bank warned would never turn a profit, Chinese lenders backed it. The railway has since lost more than $200m. Often, Chinese firms are tough negotiators. Several have struck resources-for-roads deals, such as those worth more than $1.1bn in Ghana and Guinea, where the loans are backed by bauxite… 

In 2021,  China said it would stump up its own cash to build smart new foreign ministries in Congo and Kenya. It has also picked up the tab for numerous other official buildings, from parliament complexes in Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe to presidential palaces in Burundi, Guinea-Bissau and Togo. Given such generosity, it is hardly surprising that some African governments are predisposed to favor Chinese firms…. 

Perhaps as important is that China is unwittingly crowding in Western money by stoking the geopolitical anxieties of Western leaders. Britain’s government recently said its development arm would invest $1bn in Kenyan infrastructure and that a British firm would build a new rail hub in central Nairobi. The G7 group of countries last year launched the Build Back Better World initiative, a shameless copy of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). All this should mean more opportunities for construction firms of all nationalities, whether Western, Chinese or, with a bit of luck, African, too.

Excerpts from Chasing the dragon: How Chinese firms have dominated African infrastructure, Economist,  Feb. 19, 2022

How Artificial Intelligence Can Help Produce Better Chemical Weapons

An international security conference convened by the Swiss Federal Institute for NBC (nuclear, biological and chemical) Protection —Spiez Laboratory explored how artificial intelligence (AI) technologies for drug discovery could be misused for de novo design of biochemical weapons.  According to the researchers, discussion of societal impacts of AI has principally focused on aspects such as safety, privacy, discrimination and potential criminal misuse, but not on national and international security. When we think of drug discovery, we normally do not consider technology misuse potential. We are not trained to consider it, and it is not even required for machine learning research.

According to the scientists, this should serve as a wake-up call for our colleagues in the ‘AI in drug discovery’ community. Although some expertise in chemistry or toxicology is still required to generate toxic substances or biological agents that can cause significant harm, when these fields intersect with machine learning models, where all you need is the ability to code and to understand the output of the models themselves, they dramatically lower technical thresholds. Open-source machine learning software is the primary route for learning and creating new models like ours, and toxicity datasets that provide a baseline model for predictions for a range of targets related to human health are readily available.

The genie is out of the medicine bottle when it comes to repurposing our machine learning. We must now ask: what are the implications? Our own commercial tools, as well as open-source software tools and many datasets that populate public databases, are available with no oversight. If the threat of harm, or actual harm, occurs with ties back to machine learning, what impact will this have on how this technology is perceived? Will hype in the press on AI-designed drugs suddenly flip to concern about AI-designed toxins, public shaming and decreased investment in these technologies? As a field, we should open a conversation on this topic. The reputational risk is substantial: it only takes one bad apple, such as an adversarial state or other actor looking for a technological edge, to cause actual harm by taking what we have vaguely described to the next logical step. How do we prevent this? Can we lock away all the tools and throw away the key? Do we monitor software downloads or restrict sales to certain groups?

Excerpts from Fabio Urbina et al, Dual use of artificial-intelligence-powered drug discovery, Nature Machine Intelligence (2022)

Who Cares? Clicking Away Privacy Rights

The latest developments in a high-profile criminal probe by  US special counsel John Durham show the extent to which the world’s internet traffic is being monitored by a coterie of network researchers and security experts inside and outside the US government. The monitoring is made possible by little-scrutinized partnerships, both informal and formal, among cybersecurity companies, telecommunications providers and government agencies.

The U.S. government is obtaining bulk data about network usage, according to federal contracting documents and people familiar with the matter, and has fought disclosure about such activities. Academic and independent researchers are sometimes tapped to look at data and share any findings with the government without warrants or judicial authorization…

Unlike the disclosures by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden from nearly a decade ago, which revealed U.S. intelligence programs that relied on covert access to private data streams, the sharing of internet records highlighted by Mr. Durham’s probe concerns commercial information that is often being shared with or sold to the government in bulk. Such data sets can possess enormous intelligence value, according to current and former government officials and cybersecurity experts, especially as the power of computers to derive insights from massive data sets has grown in recent years.

Such network data can help governments and companies detect and counter cyberattacks. But that capability also has privacy implications, despite assurances from researchers that most of the data can’t be traced back to individuals or organizations.

At issue are several kinds of internet logs showing the connections between computers, typically collected on networking devices such as switches or routers. They are the rough internet equivalent of logs of phone calls—showing which computers are connecting and when, but not necessarily revealing anything about the content of the transmissions. Modern smartphones and computers generate thousands of such logs a day just by browsing the web or using consumer apps…

“A question worth asking is: Who has access to large pools of telecommunications metadata, such as DNS records, and under what circumstances can those be shared with the government?…Surveillance takes the path of least resistance…,” according to Julian Sanchez, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.

Excerpts from Byron Tau et al., Probe Reveals Unregulated Access to Data Streams, WSJ, Feb.. 28, 2022

The Sacrificial Lambs of Green Energy

Lithium Americas, a Canadian company, has plans to build a mine and processing plant at Thacker Pass, near the southern tip of the caldera in Nevada. It would be America’s biggest lithium mine. Ranchers and farmers in nearby Orovada, a town of about 120 people, worry that the mine will threaten their water supply and air quality. Native American tribes in the region say they were not properly consulted before the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a federal agency that manages America’s vast public lands, decided to permit the project. Tribes also allege that a massacre of their ancestors took place at Thacker Pass in 1865…

The fight over Thacker Pass is not surprising. President Joe Biden wants half of all cars sold in 2030 to be electric, and to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. These ambitious climate targets mean that battles over where and how to mine are coming to mineral-rich communities around the country. America is in need of cobalt, copper and lithium, among other things, which are used in batteries and other clean-energy technologies. As with past commodity booms, large deposits of many of these materials are found in America’s western states . America, of course, is not the only country racing to secure access to such materials. As countries pledge to go carbon-free, global demand for critical minerals is set to soar. The International Energy Agency, a forecaster, estimates that by 2040 demand for lithium could increase by more than 40 times relative to 2020. Demand for cobalt and nickel could grow by about 20 times in the same period.

Beyond its green goals, America is also intent on diversifying mineral supplies away from China and Russia (big producer of nickel), which—by virtue of its natural bounty and muscular industrial policy—has become a raw-materials juggernaut… The green transition has also turned the pursuit of critical minerals into a great-power competition not unlike the search for gold or oil in eras past. Mining for lithium, the Department of Energy (DOE) says, is not only a means of fighting climate change but also a matter of national security.

Westerners have seen all this before, and are wary of new mines…The economic history of the American West is a story of boom and bust. When a commodity bubble burst, boomtowns were abandoned. The legacy of those busts still plagues the region. In 2020 the Government Accountability Office estimated that there could be at least 530,000 abandoned hardrock-mine features, such as tunnels or waste piles, on federal lands. At least 89,000 of those could pose a safety or environmental hazard. Most of America’s abandoned hardrock mines are in 13 states west of the Mississippi River…

Is it possible to secure critical minerals while avoiding the mistakes of previous booms? America’s debates over how to use its public lands, and to whom those lands belong, are notoriously unruly. Conservationists, energy companies, ranchers and tribal nations all feel some sense of ownership. Total harmony is unlikely. But there are ways to lessen the animosity.

Start with environmental concerns. Mining is a dirty business, but development and conservation can coexist. In 2020 Stanford University helped broker a national agreement between the hydropower industry and conservation groups to increase safety and efficiency at existing dams while removing dams that are harming the environment….Many worry that permitting new development on land sacred to tribes will be yet another example of America’s exploitation of indigenous peoples in pursuit of land and natural resources. msci, a consultancy, reckons that 97% of America’s nickel reserves, 89% of copper, 79% of lithium and 68% of cobalt are found within 35 miles of Native American reservations.

TThe BLM is supposed to consult tribes about policies that may affect the tribes but the  consultation process is broken. Often it consists of sending tribes a letter notifying them of a mining or drilling proposal.

Lithium Americas has offered to build the town a new school, one that will be farther away from a road that the firm will use to transport sulphur. Sitting in her truck outside a petrol station that doubles as Orovada’s local watering hole, Ms Amato recalled one group member’s response to the offer: “If all I’m going to get is a kick in the ass, because we’re getting the mine regardless, then I may as well get a kick in the ass and a brand new school.”

Excerpt from America’s Next Mining Boom: Between a Rock and a Hard Place, Economist, Feb. 19, 2022

Noise-Barriers and Noise-Victims: the Plants

Sounds are concussive pressure waves transmitted through gases, liquids and solids. Scientists have previously hypothesized that plants may be able to sense these waves as they are struck by them. A number of experiments have confirmed this in recent years—plants bombarded with ultrasound in the lab have shown a range of adverse responses including the expression of stress-related genes, stunted growth and reduced germination of seeds.

Yet blasting plants with ultrasound is not the same as growing them in the presence of actual traffic noise. To this end, Dr Ghotbi-Ravandi decided to set up an experiment to study precisely this question….Dr Ghotbi-Ravandi’s results were published in the journal Basic and Applied Ecology. His findings make it clear that, though plants lack ears, the vibrations generated by the noise of traffic still bothers them enough to trigger potent stress responses that are not much different to those that would be found in plants exposed to drought, high salinity or heavy metals in their soil… Whether some plant species have evolved coping mechanisms, which might one day be collected and transferred into urban-dwelling species, is a mystery worth exploring.

Excerpt from Botany: Deafened, Economist, Feb. 12, 2022

Living in the Russian Digital Bubble

Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, has portrayed his aggression on the Ukrainian border as pushing back against Western advances. For some time he has been doing much the same online. He has long referred to the internet as a “CIA project”. His deep belief that the enemy within and the enemy without are in effect one and the same… Faced with such “aggression”, Mr Putin wants a Russian internet that is secure against external threat and internal opposition. He is trying to bring that about on a variety of fronts: through companies, the courts and technology itself.

In December 2021, VK, one of Russia’s online conglomerates, was taken over by two subsidiaries of Gazprom, the state-owned gas giant. In the same month a court in Moscow fined Alphabet, which owns Google, a record $98m for its repeated failure to delete content the state deems illegal. And Mr Putin’s regime began using hardware it has required internet service providers (ISPS) to install to block Tor, a tool widely used in Russia to mask online activity. All three actions were part of the country’s effort to assure itself of online independence by building what some scholars of geopolitics, borrowing from Silicon Valley, have begun calling a “stack”.

In technology, the stack is the sum of all the technologies and services on which a particular application relies, from silicon to operating system to network. In politics it means much the same, at the level of the state. The national stack is a sovereign digital space made up not only of software and hardware (increasingly in the form of computing clouds) but also infrastructure for payments, establishing online identities and controlling the flow of information

China built its sovereign digital space with censorship in mind. The Great Firewall, a deep-rooted collection of sophisticated digital checkpoints, allows traffic to be filtered with comparative ease. The size of the Chinese market means that indigenous companies, which are open to various forms of control, can successfully fulfil all of their users’ needs. And the state has the resources for a lot of both censorship and surveillance. Mr Putin and other autocrats covet such power. But they cannot get it. It is not just that they lack China’s combination of rigid state control, economic size, technological savoir-faire and stability of regime. They also failed to start 25 years ago. So they need ways to achieve what goals they can piecemeal, by retrofitting new controls, incentives and structures to an internet that has matured unsupervised and open to its Western begetters.

Russia’s efforts, which began as purely reactive attempts to lessen perceived harm, are becoming more systematic. Three stand out: (1) creating domestic technology, (2) controlling the information that flows across it and, perhaps most important, (3) building the foundational services that underpin the entire edifice.

Russian Technology

The government has made moves to restart a chipmaking plant in Zelenograd near Moscow, the site of a failed Soviet attempt to create a Silicon Valley. But it will not operate at the cutting edge. So although an increasing number of chips are being designed in Russia, they are almost all made by Samsung and TSMC, a South Korean and a Taiwanese contract manufacturer. This could make the designs vulnerable to sanctions….

For crucial applications such as mobile-phone networks Russia remains highly reliant on Western suppliers, such as Cisco, Ericsson and Nokia. Because this is seen as leaving Russia open to attacks from abroad, the industry ministry, supported by Rostec, a state-owned arms-and-technology giant, is pushing for next-generation 5g networks to be built with Russian-made equipment only. The country’s telecoms industry does not seem up to the task. And there are internecine impediments. Russia’s security elites, the siloviki, do not want to give up the wavelength bands best suited for 5g. But the only firm that could deliver cheap gear that works on alternative frequencies is Huawei, an allegedly state-linked Chinese electronics group which the siloviki distrust just as much as security hawks in the West do.

It is at the hardware level that Russia’s stack is most vulnerable. Sanctions imposed may treat the country, as a whole,  like Huawei is now treated by America’s government. Any chipmaker around the world that uses technology developed in America to design or make chips for Huawei needs an export license from the Commerce Department in Washington—which is usually not forthcoming. If the same rules are applied to Russian firms, anyone selling to them without a license could themselves risk becoming the target of sanctions. That would see the flow of chips into Russia slow to a trickle.

When it comes to software the Russian state is using its procurement power to amp up demand. Government institutions, from schools to ministries, have been encouraged to dump their American software, including Microsoft’s Office package and Oracle’s databases. It is also encouraging the creation of alternatives to foreign services for consumers, including TikTok, Wikipedia and YouTube. Here the push for indigenization has a sturdier base on which to build. Yandex, a Russian firm which splits the country’s search market with Alphabet’s Google, and VK, a social-media giant, together earned $1.8bn from advertising last year, more than half of the overall market. VK’s vKontakte and Odnoklassniki trade places with American apps (Facebook, Instagram) and Chinese ones (Likee, TikTok) on the top-ten downloads list.

This diverse system is obviously less vulnerable to sanctions—which are nothing like as appealing a source of leverage here as they are elsewhere in the stack. Making Alphabet and Meta stop offering YouTube and WhatsApp, respectively, in Russia would make it much harder for America to launch its own sorties into Russian cyberspace. So would disabling Russia’s internet at the deeper level of protocols and connectivity. All this may push Russians to use domestic offerings more, which would suit Mr Putin well.

As in China, Russia is seeing the rise of “super-apps”, bundles of digital services where being local makes sense. Yandex is not just a search engine. It offers ride-hailing, food delivery, music-streaming, a digital assistant, cloud computing and, someday, self-driving cars. Sber, Russia’s biggest lender, is eyeing a similar “ecosystem” of services, trying to turn the bank into a tech conglomerate. In the first half of 2021 alone it invested $1bn in the effort, on the order of what biggish European banks spend on information technology (IT). Structural changes in the IT industry are making some of this Russification easier. Take the cloud. Its data centres use cheap servers made of off-the-shelf parts and other easily procured commodity kit. Much of its software is open-source. Six of the ten biggest cloud-service providers in Russia are now Russian…The most successful ones are “moving away from proprietary technology” sold by Western firms (with the exception of chips)…

Information Flow

If technology is the first part of Russia’s stack, the “sovereign internet” is the second. It is code for how a state controls the flow of information online. In 2019 the government amended several laws to gain more control of the domestic data flow. In particular, these require ISPS to install “technical equipment for counteracting threats to stability, security and functional integrity”. This allows Roskomnadzor, Russia’s internet watchdog, to have “middle boxes” slipped into the gap between the public internet and an ISPS’ customers. Using “deep packet inspection” (DPI), a technology used at some Western ISPS to clamp down on pornography, these devices are able to throttle or block traffic from specific sources (and have been deployed in the campaign against Tor). DPI kit sits in rooms with restricted access within the ISPS’ facilities and is controlled directly from a command center at Roskomnadzor. This is a cheap but imperfect version of China’s Great Firewall.

Complementing the firewall are rules that make life tougher for firms. In the past five years Google has fielded 20,000-30,000 content-removal requests annually from the government in Russia, more than in any other country. From this year 13 leading firms—including Apple, TikTok and Twitter—must employ at least some content moderators inside Russia. This gives the authorities bodies to bully should firms prove recalcitrant. The ultimate goal may be to push foreign social media out of Russia altogether, creating a web of local content… But this Chinese level of control would be technically tricky. And it would make life more difficult for Russian influence operations, such as those of the Internet Research Agency, to use Western sites to spread propaganda, both domestically and abroad.


Russia’s homegrown stack would still be incomplete without a third tier: the services that form the operating system of a digital state and thus provide its power. In its provision of both e-government and payment systems, Russia puts some Western countries to shame. Gosuslugi (“state services”) is one of the most-visited websites and most-downloaded apps in Russia. It hosts a shockingly comprehensive list of offerings, from passport application to weapons registration. Even critics of the Kremlin are impressed, not least because Russia’s offline bureaucracy is hopelessly inefficient and corrupt. The desire for control also motivated Russia’s leap in payment systems. In the wake of its annexation of Crimea, sanctions required MasterCard and Visa, which used to process most payments in Russia, to ban several banks close to the regime. In response, Mr Putin decreed the creation of a “National Payment Card System”, which was subsequently made mandatory for many transactions. Today it is considered one of the world’s most advanced such schemes. Russian banks use it to exchange funds. The “Mir” card which piggybacks on it has a market share of more than 25%, says GlobalData, an analytics firm.

Other moves are less visible. A national version of the internet’s domain name system, currently under construction, allows Russia’s network to function if cut off from the rest of the world (and gives the authorities a new way to render some sites inaccessible). Some are still at early stages. A biometric identity system, much like India’s Aadhaar, aims to make it easier for the state to keep track of citizens and collect data about them while offering new services. (Muscovites can now pay to take the city’s metro just by showing their face.) A national data platform would collect all sorts of information, from tax to health records—and could boost Russia’s efforts to catch up in artificial intelligence (AI).

Excerpt from Digital geopolitics: Russia is trying to build its own great firewall, Economist, Feb. 19, 2022

Ending the Plastic Paradise?

Heads of State, Ministers of environment and other representatives from 175 nations endorsed a historic resolution at the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-5) on March 2, 2022: “End Plastic Pollution: Towards an internationally legally binding instrument.” The resolution addresses the full lifecycle of plastic, including its production, design and disposal. 

The resolution…establishes an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC), which will begin its work in 2022, with the ambition of completing a draft global legally binding agreement by the end of 2024…The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) will convene a forum by the end of 2022 that is open to all stakeholders in conjunction with the first session of the INC, to share knowledge and best practices in different parts of the world.

Plastic production soared from 2 million tonnes in 1950 to 348 million tonnes in 2017, becoming a global industry valued at US$522.6 billion, and it is expected to double in capacity by 2040. 

Exposure to plastics can harm human health, potentially affecting fertility, hormonal, metabolic and neurological activity, and open burning of plastics contributes to air pollution. By 2050 greenhouse gas emissions associated with plastic production, use and disposal would account for 15 per cent of allowed emissions, under the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C (34.7°F). More than 800 marine and coastal species are affected by this pollution through ingestion, entanglement, and other dangers.

Some 11 million tonnes of plastic waste flow annually into oceans. This may triple by 2040. A shift to a circular economy can reduce the volume of plastics entering oceans by over 80 per cent by 2040; reduce virgin plastic production by 55 per cent; save governments US$70 billion by 2040; reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 per cent; and create 700,000 additional jobs – mainly in the global south.

Excerpts from ,Historic day in the campaign to beat plastic pollution: Nations commit to develop a legally binding agreement, UNEP Press Release, Mar.  2, 202

Robots to the Rescue: Best Dams on Amazon River

Proposed hydropower dams at more than 350 sites throughout the Amazon require strategic evaluation of trade-offs between the production electricity and the protection of biodiversity. 

Researchers are using artificial intelligence (AI) to identify sites that simultaneously minimize impacts on river flow, river connectivity, sediment transport, fish diversity, and greenhouse gas emissions while achieving energy production goals. The researchers found that uncoordinated, dam-by-dam hydropower expansion has resulted in forgone environmental benefits from the river. Minimizing further damage from hydropower development requires considering diverse environmental impacts across the entire basin, as well as cooperation among Amazonian nations. 

Alexander Flecker et al., Reducing adverse impacts of Amazon hydropower expansion, Science, Feb. 17, 2022

How to Make Carbon-Negative Chemicals

Bacteria engineered to turn carbon dioxide into compounds used in paint remover and hand sanitiser could offer a carbon-negative way of manufacturing industrial chemicals.

Michael Köpke at LanzaTech in Illinois and his colleagues searched through strains of an ethanol-producing bacterium, Clostridium autoethanogenum, to identify enzymes that would allow the microbes to instead create acetone, which is used to make paint and nail polish remover. Then they combined the genes for these enzymes into one organism. They repeated the process for isopropanol, which is used as a disinfectant.

The engineered bacteria ferment carbon dioxide from the air to produce the chemicals. “You can imagine the process similar to brewing beer,” says Köpke. “But instead of using a yeast strain that eats sugar to make alcohol, we have a microbe that can eat carbon dioxide.” After scaling up the initial experiments by a factor of 60, the team found that the process locks in roughly 1.78 kilograms of carbon per kilogram of acetone produced, and 1.17 kg per kg of isopropanol. These chemicals are normally made using fossil fuels, emitting 2.55 kg and 1.85 kg of carbon dioxide per kg of acetone and isopropanol respectively.

This equates to up to a 160 per cent decrease in greenhouse gas emissions, if this method were to be broadly adopted, say the researchers. The technique could also be made more sustainable by using waste gas from other industrial processes, such as steel manufacturing.

Excerpt from Chen Ly, Engineered bacteria produce chemicals with negative carbon emissions, New Scientist, Feb. 21, 2022

Who Will Save the Red Sea from the Safer Oil Spill?

An oil tanker, the Safer,  tuffed with a load of more than 1 million barrels of crude oil has been left abandoned and rusting off the coast of Hodeidah, Yemen since 2015. Its decaying hulk encompasses the complexity of the civil war in Yemen. The Safer was permanently anchored off Hodeidah in 1987 and used for some four decades as a floating storage unit by Yemen’s state-run oil company to get oil from other tankers onto the mainland. However, the tanker fell into the hands of Houthi insurgents in March 2015 and has since then been – for all intents and purposes – left to rot. As a result, the structural integrity of the ship, which was built in 1976, is now at serious risk. Its firefighting system is out of order, and it has sprung several leaks over the past couple of years.

Experts estimate that the risks of an explosion on the tanker are huge and that the impact of this would be massive, as a full-blown leak in the closed basin of the Red Sea would be four times bigger than the historic Exxon Valdez disaster of 1989. Under the worst-case scenario, all of Yemen’s Red Sea ports would have to shut down, depriving millions of people of food and life-saving humanitarian aid. A spill would also affect the country’s water supply by shutting down its desalination plants…

The question is who will undertake the cost of around $75-100 million needed to defuse the Safer time bomb…On February 16, 2022 the UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, Martin Griffiths, informed the Security Council of an agreement, in principle, for a UN-coordinated proposal to shift the oil to another ship. Now all eyes are turned to the conference of donors that the UN is holding at the end of March 2022, where various states are expected to offer money to bankroll the operation.

Excerpt from Nikolas Katsimpras, An impending Red Sea disaster and Greece, Ekathimerini, Feb. 23, 2022

See also Greenpeace report