Category Archives: climate change

Scrubbing Sulfur Pollution

From January 2020, the United Nations International Maritime Organization (IMO) will ban ships from using fuels with a sulphur content above 0.5%, compared with 3.5% now.The rules herald the biggest leap in how ships are powered since they switched from burning coal to oil over a century ago, but vessels will still be allowed to use higher-sulphur fuel if fitted with cleaning devices called scrubbers.  Closed-loop scrubbers keep most of the water used for sulphur removal onboard for disposal at port. Open-loop systems, however, remove sulphur coming through a ship’s smokestack with water that can then be pumped overboard.

Years of studies have examined whether open-loop scrubbers introduce into waterways acidic sulphur harmful to marine life, cancer-causing hydrocarbons, nitrates leading to algal blooms and metals that impair organ function and cause birth defects.  The results have largely been inconclusive and the IMO itself has encouraged further study into the environmental impact of scrubbers.

The stated aim of the new IMO measures is to improve human health..  A study in the journal Nature last year found ship emissions with current sulphur levels caused about 400,000 premature deaths from lung cancer and cardiovascular disease as well as around 14 million childhood asthma cases every year.

Singapore and Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates have banned the use of open-loop scrubbers from the start of next year. China is also set to extend a ban on scrubber discharge to more coastal regions. 

Excerpts from Noah Browning, Going overboard? Shipping rules seen shifting pollution from air to sea, Reuters, Oct. 21, 2019

Greening the Mining Industry

An Australian regulator recently told Peabody Energy Glencore they couldn’t export coal from a new mine to countries that haven’t signed the Paris climate agreement. Two other Australian coal projects were scuttled in 2019, partly out of concern about greenhouse-gas emissions overseas.  Investors, too, are growing inquisitive about miners’ records on their customer emissions—partly out of fear about potential liability. Miners are responding by increasing carbon-impact disclosure, forming alliances with buyers and investing in technology to cut emissions from steel mills and power plants.  BHP  has said its scope 3 emissions—pollution mostly created when customers transport and use the commodities it produces—are almost 40 times greater than those generated at its own operations.

In the oil industry, facing similar pressures, there is friction among large companies over whether to commit to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions from products such as gasoline—in big part because emissions vary hugely depending on the vehicle…

Threats to miners’ business go beyond pushback on new projects. Consumer brands could stop buying commodities they consider too dirty, experts say. Many are already innovating with recycled materials.

In July 2019, BHP pledged to spend $400 million over five years to develop technologies that can reduce emissions both from its operations and its customers’.  “We won’t stop at the mine gate,” BHP Chief Executive Andrew Mackenzie said. …Rio Tinto is also drawing up scenarios for decarbonizing the steel industry. Success could materially affect the value of its core iron-ore business, it said.  Meantime, miners are touting their role in the shift to a low-carbon economy by producing commodities such as copper and nickel for wind turbines and electric vehicles.

Excerpts from Rhiannon Hoyle, Miners’ New Worry: Other People’s Pollution, WSJ, Oct. 9, 2019

Bio-Energy and Food Security

In the effort to keep the planet from reaching dangerous temperatures, a hybrid approach called BECCS (bioenergy with carbon capture and storage) has a seductive appeal. Crops suck carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, power plants burn the biomass to generate electricity, and the emissions are captured in a smokestack and pumped underground for long-term storage. Energy is generated even as CO2 is removed: an irresistible win-win. But, the United Nations’s climate panel sounded a warning about creating vast bioenergy plantations, which could jeopardize food production, water supplies, and land rights for poor farmers.

In an earlier special report in October 2018, IPCC called for holding the rise in global average temperatures to no more than 1.5°C above preindustrial conditions to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. It emphasized that cutting emissions won’t be enough to reach that goal. Replacing coal with renewable energy, and significantly cutting oil and natural gas, would still leave gigatons of excess carbon in the atmosphere. BECCS could remove it, computer models suggested, if several million square kilometers—an area the size of India—were devoted to energy crops.

But the 2019 IPCC report examines the consequences of deploying BECCS on that vast scale and concludes it could “greatly increase” the demand for agricultural land. The pressure on conventional crops could compromise food security, as happened in 2007 when rising U.S. corn ethanol production contributed to a spike in food prices. (In Mexico, the price of tortillas, a staple for the poor, rose 69% between 2005 and 2011.) The bioenergy plantations could also take a toll on biodiversity—as is happening in Southeast Asia, where plantations producing palm oil for biodiesel as well as food are displacing diverse tropical forest. And they could suck up scarce water, especially in drylands, where irrigation of crops might deplete local supplies, the IPCC report says.

Industrial bioenergy crops can lead to the same kinds of problems as intensive food production, such as the contamination of water from excess fertilizer. Scaling up bioenergy in developing countries can also exacerbate social problems like the loss of land by small farmers.

Excerpts from Erik Stokstad, Bioenergy plantations could fight climate change—but threaten food crops, U.N. panel warns, Science, Aug. 8, 2019

The Disappearing Birds

North America’s birds are disappearing from the skies at a rate that’s shocking even to ornithologists. Since the 1970s, the continent has lost 3 billion birds, nearly 30% of the total, and even common birds such as sparrows and blackbirds are in decline, U.S. and Canadian researchers reported in the September 2019 Issue of Science Magazine…  Five  years ago, PM Rosenberg a conservation biologist decided to take a broader look at what is happening in North America’s skies.

“I frankly thought it was going to be kind of a wash,” Rosenberg says. He expected rarer species would be disappearing but common species would be on the rise, compensating for the losses, because they tend to be generalists, and more resilient. Indeed, waterfowl and raptors are thriving, thanks to habitat restoration and other conservation efforts. But the declines in many other species, particularly those living along shorelines and in grasslands, far exceeded those gains, Rosenberg and his colleagues report. Grassland birds have declined by 53% since 1970—a loss of 700 million adults in the 31 species studied, including meadowlarks and northern bobwhites. Shorebirds such as sanderlings and plovers are down by about one-third, the team says. Habitat loss may be to blame.

The familiar birds that flock by the thousands in suburbs were not exempt. “There’s an erosion of the numbers of common birds,” Rosenberg says. His team determined that 19 common species have each lost more than 50 million birds since 1970. Twelve groups, including sparrows, warblers, finches, and blackbirds, were particularly hard hit. Even introduced species that have thrived in North America, such as starlings and house sparrows, are losing ground.  “When you lose a common species, the impact will be much more massive on the ecosystem and ecosystem services,” says Gerardo Ceballos, an ecologist and conservation biologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City. “It’s showing the magnitude of the problem.”

Some of the causes may be subtle. Last week, toxicologists described how low doses of neonicotinoids—a common pesticide—made migrating sparrows lose weight and delay their migration, which hurts their chances of surviving and reproducing. Climate change, habitat loss, shifts in food webs, and even cats may all be adding to the problem, and not just for birds. 

Weather radar data revealed similarly steep declines. Radar detects not just rain, but also insect swarms and flocks of birds, which stand out at night, when birds usually migrate. “We don’t see individual birds, it’s more like a big blob moving through airspace,” explains Cornell migration ecologist Adriaan Dokter. He converted “blobs” from 143 radar stations into biomass. Between 2007 and 2017, that biomass declined 13%, the Science paper reports. The greatest decline was in birds migrating up the eastern United States….

Excerpts from Elizabeth Pennisi, Billions of North American Birds Have Vanished,  Science, Sept. 20, 2019

A Cure Worse than the Disease? Biofuels in Planes

The 2019 report by the Rainforest Foundation Norway RFN is called ‘Destination Deforestation’ and reviewed the role of the aviation industry in contributing to the climate crisis, concluding that there’s a high risk that increased use of palm and soy-based biofuel in planes will lead to increased deforestation.

Finland, the world’s largest producers of renewable diesel and the only EU country that gives additional incentives for the use of palm oil products to manufacture biofuel, could spearhead the race towards deforestation, as areas of rainforest in countries like Indonesia or in South America are cleared to plant crops that will later be used to produce the fuel.  RFN says that meeting the aviation industry’s own climate-change targets to reduce emissions could result in 3.2 million hectares of tropical forest lost, an area larger than Belgium.

Researchers at Rainforest Foundation Norway believe the Finnish incentives for (Palm Fatty Acid Distillate) PFAD-based biofuels are likely to contribute to this deforestation, since Finland’s state-owned oil company Neste produces half of the world’s renewable diesel.  “Finland continues to treat the palm oil by-product PFAD as a waste, eligible for additional incentives. In addition, Finland is home to Neste, the world’s largest producer of hydrotreated biodiesel, and uses PFAD as a raw material. Therefore, Finland’s program could contribute to the massive deforestation discussed in our report” he explains.

With Finland left isolated as the only EU country to pay producers to use waste-classified PFAD in biofuel production, Rainforest Foundation Norway cautions that the country risks becoming a dumping ground for unsustainable raw material….“As long as PFAD is classified as ‘waste’, it enjoys huge incentives from the state. Biofuels made out of PFAD are completely exempt from carbon dioxide tax in Finland. Additionally, PFAD’s emissions can be discounted, and it is not subject to the same sustainability criteria as other raw materials.

With ‘flight shame’ gaining more momentum across the world, the aviation industry is desperate to find ways to make flying compatible with climate goals. While replacing fossil fuels with renewables sounds like a great idea, the sustainability of biofuels is highly dependent on the raw materials used to produce them…The most common aviation biofuels, Hydrogenated Esters and Fatty Acids (HEFA) fuels are produced from vegetable oils and animal fats. While the use of waste oils and other recycled materials is possible, the most viable raw materials for HEFA jet fuels are food crops.  “The cheapest and most readily available raw materials for HEFA jet fuel are palm oil and soy oil, which are closely linked to tropical deforestation” Ranum says.  The experts suggest that aiming to reduce emissions by increasing demand for palm and soy oil is a cure worse than the disease.

Elias Huuhtan, Report: Finland’s push to use biofuel could cause ‘massive deforestation, https://newsnowfinland.fi/ , Oct. 7, 2019

Can Nuclear Power Beat Climate Change?

The 2019 World Nuclear Industry Status Report (WNISR2019) assesses the status and trends of the international nuclear industry and analyzes the potential role of nuclear power as an option to combat climate change. Eight interdisciplinary experts from six countries, including four university professors and the Rocky Mountain Institute’s co-founder and chairman emeritus, have contributed to the report.

While the number of operating reactors has increased over the past year by four to 417 as of mid-2019, it remains significantly below historic peak of 438 in 2002.  Nuclear construction has been shrinking over the past five years with 46 units underway as of mid-2019, compared to 68 reactors in 2013 and 234 in 1979. The number of annual construction starts have fallen from 15 in the pre-Fukushima year (2010) to five in 2018 and, so far, one in 2019. The historic peak was in 1976 with 44 construction starts, more than the total in the past seven years.

WNISR project coordinator and publisher Mycle Schneider stated: “There can be no doubt: the renewal rate of nuclear power plants is too slow to guarantee the survival of the technology. The world is experiencing an undeclared ‘organic’ nuclear phaseout.”  Consequently, as of mid-2019, for the first time the average age of the world nuclear reactor fleet exceeds 30 years.

However, renewables continue to outpace nuclear power in virtually all categories. A record 165 gigawatts (GW) of renewables were added to the world’s power grids in 2018; the nuclear operating capacity increased by 9 GW. Globally, wind power output grew by 29% in 2018, solar by 13%, nuclear by 2.4%. Compared to a decade ago, nonhydro renewables generated over 1,900 TWh more power, exceeding coal and natural gas, while nuclear produced less.

What does all this mean for the potential role of nuclear power to combat climate change? WNISR2019 provides a new focus chapter on the question. Diana Ürge-Vorsatz, Professor at the Central European University and Vice-Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group III, notes in her Foreword to WNISR2019 that several IPCC scenarios that reach the 1.5°C temperature target rely heavily on nuclear power and that “these scenarios raise the question whether the nuclear industry will actually be able to deliver the magnitude of new power that is required in these scenarios in a cost-effective and timely manner.”

Over the past decade, levelized cost estimates for utility-scale solar dropped by 88%, wind by 69%, while nuclear increased by 23%. New solar plants can compete with existing coal fired plants in India, wind turbines alone generate more electricity than nuclear reactors in India and China. But new nuclear plants are also much slower to build than all other options, e.g. the nine reactors started up in 2018 took an average of 10.9 years to be completed. In other words, nuclear power is an option that is more expensive and slower to implement than alternatives and therefore is not effective in the effort to battle the climate emergency, rather it is counterproductive, as the funds are then not available for more effective options.

Excerpts from WNISR2019 Assesses Climate Change and the Nuclear Power Option, Sept. 24, 2019

Zero Radioactive Leakage: China Experiments with Nuclear Waste Disposal

China has chosen a site for an underground laboratory to research the disposal of highly radioactive waste, the country’s nuclear safety watchdog said in September 2019.
Officials said work would soon begin on building the Beishan Underground Research Laboratory 400 metres (1,312 feet) underground in the northwestern province of Gansu, in the middle of the Gobi desert.

(a) Enttrance Beishan Underground Research Laboratory
(b) Ramp Beishan Underground Research Laboratory

Liu Hua, head of the National Nuclear Safety Administration, said work would be carried out to determine whether it was possible to build a repository for high-level nuclear waste deep underground….Once the laboratory is built, scientists and engineers will start experiments to confirm whether it will make a viable underground storage facility…

Gobi desert

Lei Yian, an associate professor at Peking University’s school of physics, said there was no absolute guarantee that the repositories would be safe when they came into operation.
Leakage has happened in [repositories] in the US and the former Soviet Union … It’s a difficult problem worldwide,” he said. “If China can solve it, then it will have solved a global problem.”
China is also building more facilities to dispose of low and intermediate-level waste. Officials said new plants were being built in Zhejiang, Fujian and Shandong, three coastal provinces that lack disposal facilities.

Excerpts from Echo Xie , China earmarks site to store nuclear waste deep underground,  South China Morning Post, Sept 5, 2019