Monthly Archives: October 2022

Taming the Apocalypse Horsemen: Steel Cement Chemicals

Heavy industry has long seemed irredeemably carbon-intensive. Reducing iron ore to make steel, heating limestone to produce cement and using steam to crack hydrocarbons into their component molecules all require a lot of energy. On top of that, the chemical processes involved give off lots of additional carbon dioxide. Cutting all those emissions, experts believed, was either technically unfeasible or prohibitively expensive.

Both the economics and the technology are at last looking more favorable. Europe is introducing tougher emissions targets, carbon prices are rising and consumers are showing a greater willingness to pay more for greener products. Several European countries have crafted strategies for hydrogen, the most promising replacement for fossil fuels in many industrial processes. Germany is launching the Hydrogen Intermediary Network Company, a global trading hub for hydrogen and hydrogen-derived products. Most important, low-carbon technologies are finally coming of age. The need for many companies to replenish their ageing assets offers a “fast-forward mechanism”, says Per-Anders Enkvist of Material Economics…Decarbonising industry has turned from mission impossible to “mission possible”, says Adair Turner of the Energy Transitions Commission, a think-tank.

In July 2022 the board of Salzgitter, a German steel company, gave the nod to a €723m project called SALCOS that will swap its conventional blast furnaces for direct-reduction plants by 2033 (it will use some natural gas until it can secure enough hydrogen). Other big European steel producers, including ArcelorMittal and Thyssenkrupp, have similar plans.

HeidelbergCement, the world’s fourth-largest manufacturer of the cement has launched half a dozen low-carbon projects in Europe. They include a carbon capture storage (CCS) facility in the Norwegian city of Brevik and the world’s first carbon-neutral cement plant on the Swedish island of Gotland…The chemicals industry faces the biggest challenge. Although powering steam crackers with electricity instead of natural gas is straightforward in principle, it is no cakewalk in practice, given the limited supply of low-carbon electricity. Moreover, the chemicals business breathes hydrocarbons, from which many of its 30,000 or so products are derived. Even so, it is not giving up. BASF, a chemicals colossus, is working with two rivals, SABIC and Linde, to develop an electrically heated steam cracker for its town-sized factory in Ludwigshafen. It wants to make its site in Antwerp net-zero by 2030. 

A few dozen pilot projects—even large ones—do not amount to a green transition. The hard part is scaling them up.  However, the first movers will be able to  set the standards and grabbing a slice of potentially lucrative businesses such as software to control hydrogen- and steelmaking equipment. 

Excerpts from Green-dustrialization, Economist, Sept. 24, 2022

Exist, Evolve, Be Restored: the Rights of Nature

Only a few years ago, the clear, shallow waters of Mar Menor, a saltwater lagoon off eastern Spain that is Europe’s largest, hosted a robust population of the highly endangered fan mussel, a meter-long bivalve. But in 2016, a massive algal bloom, fueled by fertilizer washing off farm fields, sucked up the lagoon’s oxygen and killed 98% of the bivalves, along with seahorses, crabs, and other marine life.

The suffocating blooms struck again and again, and millions of dead fish washed onto shore. In 2021 local residents—some of whom benefit from tourism to the lagoon—had had enough. Led by a philosophy professor, activists launched a petition to adopt a new and radical legal strategy: granting the 135-square-kilometer lagoon the rights of personhood. Nearly 640,000 Spanish citizens signed it, and on 21 September, Spain’s Senate approved a bill enshrining the lagoon’s new rights. The new law doesn’t regard the lagoon and its watershed as fully human. But the ecosystem now has a legal right to exist, evolve naturally, and be restored. And like a person, it has legal guardians, including a scientific committee, which will give its defenders a new voice.

The lagoon is the first ecosystem in Europe to get such rights, but this approach to conservation has been gaining popularity around the world over the past decade…The clearest success story, scholars say, is the Whanganui River in New Zealand, which was given legal rights by an act of Parliament in 2017. Like a person, the river and its catchment can sue or be sued, enter contracts, and hold property. In that case, the aim was not to stop pollution but to incorporate the Māori connection between people and nature into Western law. “The river and the land and its people are inseparable,” Niko Tangaroa, a Māori elder of the Whanganui Iwi people and a prominent activist for the river, wrote in 1994.

Excerpts from Erik Stokstad, This Lagoon is Effectively a Person, New Spanish Law Says, Science, Oct. 7, 2022

Rich Environmental Criminals

“The brutality and profit margins in the area of environmental crime are almost unimaginable. Cartels have taken over entire sectors of illegal mining, the timber trade and waste disposal,” according to Sasa Braun, intelligence officer with Interpol’s environmental security program  Braun listed examples. Villages in Peru that had resisted deforestation efforts had been razed to the ground by criminal gangs in retribution, he said, while illegal fishing fleets had thrown crew overboard to avoid having to pay them.

Environmental crime has many faces and includes the illegal wildlife trade, illegal logging, illegal waste disposal and the illegal discharge of pollutants into the atmosphere, water or soil. It is a lucrative business for transnational crime networks. Illegal waste trafficking, for example, accounts for $10 to 12 billion (€10.28 to 12.34 billion) annually, according to 2016 figures from the United Nations Environment Program. Criminal networks save on the costs of proper disposal and obtaining permits. For some crime networks, the profits from waste management are so huge that it has become more interesting than drug trafficking…The profits from illegal logging have also grown…

According to the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation (Europol), environmental crime — the third most lucrative area of crime worldwide after drug trafficking and counterfeit goods — generates profits of between $110 billion and $280 billion each year.

Excerpts from Environmental crime: Profit can be higher than drug trade, DW, Oct. 16, 2022

Patriotic Traitors: Covering Up Oil Theft in Nigeria

Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country desperately needs the money an oil boom could bring. Some 40% of its people live on less than the equivalent of $1.90 a day. The woeful economy has contributed to the violence that afflicts much of the country. In the first half of this year, nearly 6,000 people were killed by jihadists, kidnappers, bandits or the army.

One of the reasons Nigeria’s public finances benefit so little from high oil prices is that production itself has slumped to 1.1m barrels per day, the lowest in decades. Output has been dipping since 2005.  Output is falling partly because the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) is so short of cash…And a lot of the oil it pumps never makes it into official exports because it is stolen. Watchdogs reckon that 5-20% of Nigeria’s oil is stolen…The spate of vandalism at one point prompted the NNPC to shut down its entire network of pipelines, he said.

One way to steal is to understate how much oil has been loaded in legitimate shipments. Another is to break into pipelines and siphon oil off, then cook it up in bush refineries before selling it. Five years ago the Stakeholder Democracy Network, a watchdog in the Niger Delta, carried out a survey that found more than a hundred such refineries in just two of Nigeria’s nine oil-producing states. Lacking other ways to make a good living, hundreds of thousands of young people are involved in illegal refining, says Ledum Mitee, a local leader from Ogoniland, a region in the Delta.
 
Plenty of stolen crude goes straight into the international market. Small boats glide along the Delta’s canals, filling up from illegally tapped pipelines. They deliver it to offshore tankers or floating oil platforms. Sometimes the stolen crude is mixed with the legal variety, then sold to unknowing buyers. Much of it, however, is bought by traders who pretend not to know it is stolen, or simply do not care if it is or not. “

Tapping into the pipes for large volumes, heated to keep the crude flowing, requires real expertise. It also requires complicity from some of the officials running the pipelines and from the security forces supposedly guarding them…The NNPC itself is “the north star in Nigeria’s kleptocratic constellation”, says Matthew Page of Chatham House, a think-tank in London.

Excepts from How oil-rich Nigeria failed to profit from an oil boom, Economist, Sept. 17, 2022

Employers Kill: Knowing Your Place in Global Economy

Most migrant workers in the Gulf are Asian, but a growing number of East Africans are joining them. Last year 87,000 Ugandans travelled to the Middle East under the government’s “labor externalization” program. About that many Kenyans made similar trips. Official routes to the Gulf are distinct from irregular migration… but they are not risk-free. Returning workers tell stories of racism, abuse and exploitation.

For African governments, exporting workers is easier than creating jobs for them at home. Remittances sent back to Uganda by workers from abroad generate more foreign exchange than coffee, the main export crop. Labor migration is good business for more than 200 recruitment firms, some of which are owned by army officers and close relatives of the president, Yoweri Museveni.

Employers in the Gulf want African labor because it is cheap. Under bilateral agreements a Ugandan maid in Saudi Arabia gets 900 riyals ($240) a month—much more than she could make at home, but less than the 1,500 riyals which most Filipinos earn…For most Africans, the Gulf means two years of drudgery, mixing long hours with grinding isolation. For some it is far worse. Jacky (not her real name) was raped by her boss in Saudi Arabia.

In a survey of Kenyan migrants to the Gulf by the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery, a campaign group, 99% said they had been abused. The most frequent complaints were the confiscation of passports or withholding of wages, but violence and rape were also depressingly common. Last year 28 Ugandans died while working in the Middle East. Activists suspect that some may have been killed by their bosses…The kafala system, prevalent in the Gulf,  ties migrant workers to the employers who sponsored their visas. “The minute you leave your workplace without the employer’s permission, you can be deported as a runaway,” says Vani Saraswathi of Migrant-Rights.org, an advocacy group based in the Gulf. 

Why then do Ugandans still migrate? Some may be naïve, but many are grimly realistic about their place in the world economy. This pragmatism is evident at a training session in Kampala, where a hundred recruits are learning how to make beds, wash a car and use a microwave. 

Excerpts from In the Gulf 99% of Kenyan migrant workers are abused, a poll finds, Economist, Sept. 17, 2022

Irradiating Plastics to Death: the IAEA Solution

Plastic pollution has become one of the major global environmental challenges of the century; projections show that by 2050 the oceans may have more plastic than fish. Nuclear technology has emerged as one innovative solution to this growing problem. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been working on an initiative called  Nuclear Technology for Controlling Plastic Pollution – NUTEC Plastics.

Nuclear technology can be used to innovate plastic waste recycling and support development of biodegradable, green alternatives to single use petroleum-based plastic products – an approach aimed at reducing the volume of plastic waste world-wide and prevent the plastics from reaching earth’s marine environments.  Nuclear techniques can also be used to quantify and characterize marine microplastic pollution and to assess their impact on coastal and marine ecosystems.  A global plastics monitoring network of marine laboratories can also help tackle marine pollution. Presently, there are 55 laboratories in the global NUTEC Plastics Monitoring Network. ..

The Philippines has a significant plastic pollution problem and a great interest in recycling. The Department of Science and Technology (DOST) in the Philippines has undertaken a pre-feasibility study for a pilot plant employing electron beam radiation to combine two waste streams – plastics and palm tree fibers – into a new consumer product, construction material…

The IAEA is unique within the United Nations system in having laboratories in Austria and Monaco that apply nuclear science to help states address some of the world’s biggest issues, including plastic pollution… The Monaco laboratories serve as the central hub to the global NUTEC Plastics Monitoring Network.

Excerpts from Sinead Harvey, More Plastic Than Fish by 2050 – IAEA Event Gathers Experts Working Together to Save Marine Environments from Plastic Pollution, IAEA Newsletter, Sept. 28, 2022