Category Archives: Environment

The Lies Around Plastics

California’s attorney general is investigating Exxon Mobil C and other fossil-fuel and petrochemical companies, accusing them of misleading the public about the impact of plastic pollution. He said his office has issued a subpoena to Exxon seeking information about what he called an “an aggressive campaign to deceive the public, perpetuating a myth that recycling can solve the plastics crisis.” 

“The truth is: The vast majority of plastic cannot be recycled,” Mr. Bonta said. “This first-of-its-kind investigation will examine the fossil fuel industry’s role in creating and exacerbating the plastics pollution crisis—and what laws, if any, have been broken in the process.”

Plastics and other petrochemical products are ubiquitous features of modern life, used to fashion everything from car fenders and shampoo bottles to smartphones. The United Nations estimates that the world generates more than 400 million metric tons of plastic waste every year and that vast amounts of that end up in oceans and other waterways. Plastics take hundreds of years to decompose and first break down into tiny particles. Scientists have found these particles in drinking water and food, and some estimate many human beings will consume dozens of pounds of plastic in their lifetimes.

Driven by the shale drilling revolution, which unleashed massive volumes of oil and gas, the petrochemical industry has invested more than $200 billion in U.S. plastics-and-chemical-manufacturing plants over the past decade. Exxon has invested billions of dollars on such facilities and is one of the world’s largest producers of virgin plastic.

Petrochemical companies have recently promised to invest billions of dollars in recycling. Exxon said last year that it would build its first large recycling facility in Texas, which it said would initially have the capacity to recycle 30,000 metric tons of plastic waste a year. The Minderoo Foundation, an Australian philanthropic group, estimates that Exxon produced 5.9 million metric tons of single-use plastic in 2019. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates the U.S. typically recycles only about 9% of produced plastic.

Excerpts from Christopher M. Matthew, Exxon Subpoenaed in California’s Probe of Plastics Makers, Apr. 29, 2022

See also Inside the long war to protect plastic

Should We Boil Lobsters Alive?

If the UK joins a handful of other nations to recognize the sentience of invertebrates, such as cephalopod mollusks and decapod crustaceans, by, for example, prohibiting the boiling of live lobsters, this will be based on evidence that emotions and felt experiences (i.e., sentience) are not limited to animals close to humans, such as the mammals.

Over a decade ago, the same debate revolved around fish. Do fish feel pain? …This debate was settled when fish were found to learn from encounters with negative stimuli by avoiding dangerous locations. The best explanation is that fish remember these locations because they felt and neuronally processed aversive experiences. The same logic has been followed for arthropods, such as crabs, which in experiments learn to avoid locations where they have been shocked…

For example, the face—the proverbial window on human emotions—expresses emotions through similar muscular contractions…indistinguishable between humans and chimpanzees. Obviously, increasingly distant species have increasingly different expressions of the emotions, but research has found that, for example, physiological changes, lowered temperature of the extremities, and activation of the amygdala during fear are notably similar in fearful rats and fearful humans…. 

Bees subjected to vigorous physical agitation (shaking) to simulate a predatory attack proved less willing to explore new tastes, and hence were negatively biased by their experience. They also showed reduced amounts of hemolymph dopamine, octopamine, and serotonin. Changes in these neurotransmitters mark anxiety or depression in humans.

 It is not hard to see that the denial of animal emotions, and by extension animal feelings, has been morally convenient during human’s history of animal exploitation. Conversely, their recognition is bound to shake up our moral decision-making…If crabs experience emotional states, then they have an interest in these states being positively valenced. Current research indicates that a wide range of animals have interests in avoiding felt pain, and that they would not consent to painful procedures if given the opportunity….

When the medical community recognized infant pain in the 1980s, it was because the evidence was so overwhelming that physicians could no longer act as if infants are immune to pain.

Excerpts from Frans BM de Waal and Kristin Andrews, The question of Animal Emotions, Science, Mar. 25, 2022

Who Is Responsible for the Death of Birds?

Oil industry groups and wildlife conservation advocates are squaring off over Biden administration plans of 2022 to adopt new federal rules for the accidental killing of migratory birds…The measures being considered could include a permit process for new skyscrapers, power lines, wind turbines and other structures that birds fly into, often with fatal results. Businesses that secure a permit would limit exposure to steep fines for inadvertent bird killings under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Fish and Wildlife officials are also considering assessing a conservation fee as part of that permit process, with the money going to help mitigate habitat loss that has contributed to declining bird populations.

The agency said the rules are needed to protect declining populations of migratory birds, noting that nearly 10% of roughly 1,100 species protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act are threatened or endangered. While much of that is because of habitat loss from new development and agriculture, the agency says that “millions of birds are directly killed by human-caused sources such as collisions with man-made structures,” according to a Fish and Wildlife document.

Environmentalists are backing the effort, along with some businesses that say existing regulations are ambivalent and need clarification. But the permit system, even in its infancy, is being opposed by the American Exploration & Production Council and several other oil and gas production groups. They say no data exists to show that a permitting program will protect birds “over and above our industry’s operational practices and conservation measures.” Oil and gas drilling contributes to accidental deaths of birds in several ways, including when birds fly into the colorless flames as excess methane gas is being burned off from wells.

Pits used for disposal of mud, wastewater and other liquids in connection with oil drilling are estimated to kill hundreds of thousands of birds annually, according to a Fish and Wildlife report….The American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s top lobbying group, said the Biden administration should limit criminal punishments to intentional killings following court rulings that the law doesn’t apply to accidents. If regulators create a permit program, they said it should be general, not project specific, to minimize “undue administrative burdens or delay.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups raised concerns that the permit process could obstruct projects funded by the bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure plan—along with new wind and solar energy projects that the White House wants to reduce U.S. dependence on fossil fuels and help combat climate change…Wind turbines are estimated to kill between 140,000 and 500,000 birds a year, according to Fish and Wildlife, and a major expansion of those turbines could push bird deaths over 1 million annually, wildlife researchers have estimated.

Duke Energy Corp., whose subsidiary was fined $1 million in 2013 after dozens of birds died at a wind-turbine project in Wyoming, said it supports the new rule-making effort.

TOP THREATS TO BIRDS
Hazard type — Average annual deaths (est.)

Cats — 2,400,000,000
Building glass collisions — 599,000,000
Vehicle collisions — 214,500,000
Poison — 72,000,000
Power line collisions — 25,500,000
Communication tower collisions — 6,600,000
Electrocutions — 5,600,000
Oil Pits — 750,000
Wind-turbine collisions (land-based) — 234,012
Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2017

Excerpts from Katy Stech Ferek, Battle Looms Over Bird Protection, WSJ, Apr. 15, 2022

Normal Nuclear Accidents

In March 2022, a nearly tragic accident involving India and Pakistan pointed to another path to nuclear war. The accident highlighted how complex technological systems, including those involving nuclear weapons, can generate unexpected routes to potential disaster—especially when managed by overconfident organizations.

India and Pakistan possess more than 300 nuclear weapons between them, and have fought multiple wars and faced many military crises. On March 9,2022 three years after their dispute over Kashmir escalated into attacks by jet fighters, the Pakistan Air Force detected “a high speed flying object” inside Indian territory change course and veer suddenly toward Pakistan.* It flew deep into Pakistan and crashed. The object was a BrahMos cruise missile, a weapon system developed jointly by India and Russia. India soon stated the launch was an accident.

The firing of the BrahMos missile falls within a long history of accidents involving military systems in India. Military aircraft have strayed across the borders during peacetime. India’s first nuclear submarine was reportedly “crippled” by an accident in 2018, but the government refused to divulge any details. Secrecy has prevented the investigation of an apparent failure of India’s ballistic missile defense system in 2016. Engagements between India and Pakistan can arise from such accidents, as in 1999 when a Pakistani military plane was shot down along the border by India, killing 16 people. Pakistan has had its share of accidents, including a Pakistani fighter jet crashing into the capital city in 2020.

All these weapons systems are inherently accident-prone because of two characteristics identified by organizational sociologist Charles Perrow decades ago—interactive complexity and tight coupling—that combine to make accidents a “normal” feature of the operation of some hazardous technologies. The first characteristic refers to the possibility that different parts of the system can affect each other in unexpected ways, thus producing unanticipated outcomes. The second makes it hard to stop the resulting sequence of events. For Perrow, “the dangerous accidents lie in the system, not in the components,” and are inevitable.

Perhaps the best and most troubling proof of this proposition is in the realm of nuclear weapons—which embody all the properties of high-risk technological systems. Despite decades of efforts to ensure safety, these systems have suffered many failures, accidents and close calls. During 1979–1980, for example, there were several false warnings of Soviet missile attacks, some of which resulted in U.S. nuclear forces being put on alert.  

Given the secretive nature of Indian nuclear policymaking, little is known about India’s nuclear command and control system. However, the 1999 Draft Nuclear Doctrine called for “assured capability to shift from peacetime deployment to fully employable forces in the shortest possible time.” The combination of technology and plans for being able to rapidly launch nuclear weapons raises the risk of accidental and inadvertent escalation to nuclear war.  

South Asia’s geography is pitiless. It would only take five to 10 minutes for a missile launched from India to attack Pakistan’s national capital, nuclear weapon command posts or bases….Compounding these dangers is the overconfidence of India’s officials, who displayed no recognition of the gravity of the Brahmos accident.

Excerpt from Zia Mian, M. V. Ramana, India’s Inadvertent Missile Launch Underscores the Risk of Accidental Nuclear Warfare, Scientific American, Apr. 8, 2022
 

Regulators are Smart but Smugglers are Smarter

In a move cheered by climate activists, the European Union began in 2015 to restrict the production and import of gases known as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). HFCs are widely used in refrigeration, air-conditioning and manufacturing, but they are also potent greenhouse gases. The first big shortages hit in early 2018. Prices across Europe multiplied sixfold or even more. The EU wanted to push HFC users to adopt pricey, climate-friendlier alternatives. It thought that the engineered shortage would do the trick.

But prices are still not much higher than before the crunch. The reason: HFCs were being smuggled into the EU. The trafficking is still going on. The Environmental Investigation Agency, a watchdog based in London that has dispatched researchers to pose as buyers in Romania, estimates that a quarter of all HFCs  in the EU are contraband. A body formed by chemical companies, the European FluoroCarbons Technical Committee (EFCTC), says the proportion may be as high as a third.

Such estimates are rough. But they have not been plucked from thin air. Much can be inferred, for example, by examining officially registered trade flows. Data from Turkish sources show that in 2020 more than four times as much HFC tonnage left Turkey bound for the EU than the latter reported as imported. This suggests that plenty of tanks and canisters holding HFCs enter on the sly.

The smuggling has hit some firms particularly hard. To supply greener alternatives to HFCs, Chemours, an American firm, spent around $500m on r&d and production facilities. But with illegal imports continuing to hold down HFC prices, demand for alternatives has been “stagnating” and even declining…

This has miffed America. In a report last year on barriers to trade, Katherine Tai, the American trade representative, wrote that the eu’s “insufficient oversight and enforcement” of its HFC caps is hurting American chemical firms, not to mention the climate. European officials, for their part, point to the difficulty of preventing profitable

When prices first soared, a car boot could be filled in Ukraine with canisters of an HFC blend called R404A that would sell, hours later, for ten times as much in Poland. Margins have since shrunk as legions have got in on the action. But contraband HFCs are still so valuable that canisters are sometimes given space on boats trafficking migrants from north Africa to Europe…The black market is now dominated by crime syndicates that move large volumes, says the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF). Most of the contraband seems to come from China, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine.

Excerpts from HFC Smuggling: Free as Air, Economist, Feb. 26, 2022

How Forests Create Clouds and Cool the Earth

Tropical forests have a crucial role in cooling Earth’s surface by extracting carbon dioxide from the air. But only two-thirds of their cooling power comes from their ability to suck in CO2 and store it. The other one-third comes from their ability to create clouds, humidify the air and release cooling chemicals. This is a larger contribution than expected for these ‘biophysical effects’ says Bronson Griscom, a forest climate scientist.

The analysis, published in Frontiers in Forests and Global Change in March 2022, could enable scientists to improve their climate models, while helping governments to devise better conservation and climate strategies. The findings underscore growing concerns about rampant deforestation across the tropics. Scientists warn that one-third of the world’s tropical forests have been mown down in the past few centuries, and another one-third has been degraded by logging and development. This, when combined with climate change, could transform vast swathes of forest into grasslands

Trees in the tropics provide shade, but they also act as giant humidifiers by pulling water from the ground and emitting it from their leaves, which helps to cool the surrounding area in a way similar to sweating, Griscom says. “If you go into a forest, it immediately is a considerably cooler environment,” he says.

This transpiration, in turn, creates the right conditions for clouds, which like snow and ice in the Arctic, can reflect sunlight higher into the atmosphere and further cool the surroundings. Trees also release organic compounds — for example, pine-scented terpenes — that react with other chemicals in the atmosphere to sometimes create a net cooling effect… When they considered only the biophysical effects, the researchers found that the world’s forests collectively cool the surface of the planet by around 0.5 °C.

Threats to tropical rainforests are dangerous not only for the global climate, but also for communities that neighbour the forests, Lawrence says. She and her colleagues found that the cooling caused by biophysical effects was especially significant locally. Having a rainforest nearby can help to protect an area’s agriculture and cities from heatwaves, Lawrence says. “Every tenth of a degree matters in limiting extreme weather. And where you have forests, the extremes are minimized.”

Excerpts from Freda Kreier, Tropical forests have big climate benefits beyond carbon storage, Nature, 

Unleashing Hydropower without Wasteful Disasters

After years of fighting, Native American tribes, environmentalists and the hydroelectric power industry say they have reached a deal on a proposed legislative package that could boost clean energy as well as river conservation. The compromise deal, which would require approval from Congress, is the result of four years of talks between groups that have long been courtroom and policy adversaries because of disagreements involving vanishing fish populations and changes to river ecosystems. Concerns over climate change have helped them find common ground to potentially expand hydroelectric power, a carbon-free energy source, they said.

The deal seeks to grant approvals to add hydroelectric power to some existing dams in as little as two years, while speeding the approval of off-river pumped-storage projects, which store surplus energy for later use, in as little as three years. Another key component would give tribes, instead of the Department of the Interior, authority on the conditions put on permits for things like the protection of tribal cultural resources or fish passage.

Groups supporting the package include the National Hydropower Association, American Rivers, the Skokomish Tribe, Upper Skagit Indian Tribe and the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Our respective constituencies have battled each other to a draw for generations,” said Malcolm Woolf, the National Hydropower Association’s chief executive.

Hydroelectric power makes up about 7% of the U.S. electricity mix. Around 281 hydro-generating facilities, making up roughly one-third of non-federally owned generation, are up for re-licensing by 2030. The re-licensing process usually takes more than seven years and new projects take almost as long, a regulatory environment that has been likened to nuclear power approvals. Republican Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, called the current permitting process for hydropower “a wasteful disaster” because of its yearslong timelines. “I look forward to seeing the agreement various stakeholders have reached,” he said Friday.

The proposal would amend the Federal Power Act, first passed in 1920.

Excerpts from Jennifer Hille, Tribes, Industry Groups Reach Deal to Boost U.S. Hydroelectric Power, WSJ, Apr. 4, 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

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

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

Sustainability or Lethality: Space

The United States SPACEWERX is the innovation arm of the U.S. Space Force and a part of AFWERX (the Air Force technology accelerator) whose purpose is to increase lethality at a lower cost.

The SPACEWERX has launched Orbital Prime whose purpose is to invigorate the On-orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing (OSAM) market using Active Debris Remediation (ADR) as a use case for the foundational technologies. As the congestion of the space domain and  space debris threaten the long-term sustainability of the space domain, Orbital Prime will transition agile, affordable, and accelerated OSAM space capabilities to build the foundation for space logistics while preserving the global commons.

Excerpt from Space Prime

Relentless Efficiency: the View of Pigs

Gestation crates for pigs are typically about two feet wide and prevent sows from turning around, maximizing use of available space. Some producers say it also prevents the pigs from harming one another. Breeding pigs can produce seven or more piglets per litter, totaling well over 60 piglets in consecutive pregnancies over a few years. Widespread use of gestation crates began in the 1970s as pork producers gave priority to efficiency. A 1978 article in the industry publication National Hog Farmer suggested producers consider the sow “a valuable piece of machinery whose function is to pump out baby pigs like a sausage machine.”

“Under that mind-set, the industry went, no pun intended, hog wild into moving pigs into gestation crates,” says Matthew Prescott, senior director of food and agriculture for the Humane Society, who has been focused on eliminating the crates since 2002.

Excerpt from Cara Lombardo, Relentless Wall Street Billionaire Has a Secret Cause, WSJ, Feb. 8, 2021

The Most Fantastic Thing in the World: Icefish

The most extensive and densely populated breeding colony of fish anywhere lurks deep underneath the ice of the Weddell Sea.. The 240 square kilometers of regularly spaced icefish nests, east of the Antarctic Peninsula, has astonished marine ecologists. “We had no idea that it would be just on this scale, and I think that’s the most fantastic thing,” says Mark Belchier, a fish biologist…

In February 2021, the RV Polarstern—a large German research ship–came upon thousands of 75-centimeter-wide nests, each occupied by a single adult icefish—and up to 2100 eggs…High-resolution video and cameras captured more than 12,000 adult icefish (Neopagetopsis ionah)….The  team on the RV Polarstern saw 16,160 closely packed fish nests, 76% of which were guarded by solitary males. Assuming a similar density of nests in the areas between the ship’s transects, the researchers estimate that about 60 million nests cover roughly 240 square kilometers.

The vast colony, the researchers say, is a new reason to create a marine protected area in the Weddell Sea…The Weddell Sea—a unique and largely undisturbed ecosystem—is already protected from a destructive fishing practice called bottom trawling…

Excerpt from Huge Icefish Colony Found, Science, Jan. 14, 2022

Nuclear Power Invades Space

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is testing a technology known as “nuclear thermal propulsion”… DARPA spacecraft will carry a small nuclear reactor. Inside, uranium atoms will be split to generate tremendous heat…to produce thrust. Such a spacecraft could climb to a geostationary orbit above the Earth, nearly 36,000km up, in mere hours. Satellites that burn normal rocket fuel need several days for the same trip. Nuclear-powered satellites with abundant power would also be hard to destroy—their trajectories could be changed often enough to become unpredictable. DARPA  wants to test its spacecraft, dubbed DRACO  (Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations), in orbit in 2025.

Other proposals are for radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs). These kinds of “nuclear batteries” have long been used to power probes sent into deep space, where solar power is especially feeble. Instead of building a nuclear reactor, an RTG uses devices called thermocouples to produce a modest wattage from heat released by the decay of radioactive isotopes. Plutonium-238, which is a by-product of weapons development, has been used by NASA to power both the Voyager probes, launched in the 1970s and still functioning, as well as the Curiosity rover currently trundling around Mars. Plutonium-238, however, is heavily regulated and in short suppl..Cobalt-60, with a half-life of 5.3 years, is a promising alternative and available commercially.

DARPA Draco Image https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h3ubR9F55nk

How safe is it, however, to send nuclear devices, especially reactors, into space?…A danger is accidental atmospheric re-entry. The Soviet Union flew at least 33 spy satellites with nuclear reactors for onboard power (but not propulsion). In one accident, the reactor in a satellite named Kosmos 954 failed to ascend into a high-enough “disposal orbit” at the end of its mission. In 1978 it ended up spraying radioactive debris over a swathe of Canada’s Northwest Territories…The fuel for the Soviet Kosmos 954…was 90% uranium-235, similar to the material used in the atom bomb detonated over Hiroshima in 1945…

America is not alone in its nuclear quest. China and Russia are also developing nuclear power for space. China’s wish list includes a fleet of nuclear-powered space shuttles. Russia is designing an electric-propulsion cargo spacecraft called Zeus, which will be powered by a nuclear reactor. Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, hopes to launch it in 2030. The prospect of more capable satellites will, no doubt, raise suspicions among spacefaring nations. Nuclear spacecraft with abundant electrical energy could be used to jam satellite communications…..

And not all of the interest in nuclear power comes from the armed forces. NASA…wants a nuclear plant to power a base on the Moon

Excerpt from Faster, higher, stronger: Why space is about to enter its nuclear age, Economist, Feb. 5, 2022

The Super Polluters: methane

Methane is a colorless, odorless greenhouse gas that makes up the bulk of the natural gas burned to heat homes, cook food and generate electricity. It is also the second largest driver of global warming after carbon dioxide, responsible for at least one-quarter of the rise in global average temperatures since the Industrial Revolution. Once emitted, methane molecules degrade in around a decade so they do not pile up in the atmosphere in the same way as carbon dioxide, which can persist for hundreds of years.

Slashing methane emissions, therefore, could help reduce the overall atmospheric volume of greenhouse gases and slow the pace of global warming in the near term. Patching up leaky oil-and-gas infrastructure, responsible for 22% of all man-made methane emissions, would help meet those goals. This has led to efforts to quantify methane leaks…

Two-thirds of the ultra-emitting events of methane were co-located with oil and gas production sites and pipelines; the rest came from coal production, agricultural or waste-management facilities. Accounting for 1.3m tonnes of methane per year, Turkmenistan is a ultra emitter of methane…followed by Russia, the United States, Iran, Kazakhstan and Algeria…

At the United Nations COP26 climate negotiations, held in November 2021 in Glasgow, leaders of more than 100 countries made a pact to reduce global emissions of methane by 30% by 2030. The cheapest, most cost-effective way of doing this will be to patch up oil-and-gas infrastructure, starting with the ultra-emitters…

Excerpts from Climate Change: Methane Mission, Economist, Feb. 5, 2022

The Heavy Toll of Nuclear Waste Inheritance

After decades of prevarication, Sweden decided on a final storage plan for its nuclear waste, becoming only the second country in the world after Finland to take such a step. Permission was granted in January 2022 to build a facility to package and store spent nuclear fuel at a coastal site near the Forsmark nuclear power plant, about an hour’s drive north of the capital. 

The decision is significant because it confirms Sweden’s position as a global leader in the storage of nuclear waste. Finland is the only other country to decide on such a plan and is building a storage facility at Olkiluoto, across the Gulf of Bothnia from Forsmark. Like the Forsmark project, the Finnish plan was based on a process developed by Swedish researchers. 

The method — referred to as KBS3 — will see the spent nuclear fuel stored in copper containers surrounded by bentonite clay and placed in 500 tunnels that will be 500 meters under the ground. The aim is to keep the radioactive waste isolated for at least 100,000 years….But there has been criticism of the KBS3 method over recent years, including by researchers who have suggested that copper may not be as resistant to corrosion as the method assumes, meaning the risk of leaks could be higher than expected. 

The approval of the Forsmark site is a big step forward in a long-running saga.  Since the 1970s, Swedish authorities — like their counterparts in nuclear-power-dependent states the world over — have been seeking a solution for the final storage of nuclear waste, scouring the country for suitable sites while also tasking researchers to develop safe methods.  But it took until 2011 for an application to be made by the company SKB — a nuclear waste manager owned by Swedish nuclear power producers — for planning permission at Forsmark. Since then, lengthy consultations have been held with interested parties, from scientists to residents in Östhammar municipality where Forsmark is located. The process became more politically divisive as the Green Party, which quit the government in November 2021, said the process was being rushed and more time was needed for research. 

According to the Environmental Minister Strandhäll:  “Today we have the knowledge and technology which means we don’t need to pass this responsibility onto our children and grandchildren,” she said. “This is a responsibility the government needs to take now.” 

Excerpts from  CHARLIE DUXBUR, Sweden approves nuclear waste storage site, http://www.politico.eu, Jan. 27, 2021

The Secret Nuclear Weapons Capabilities of States

South Korea, like the United States, has long relied on nuclear power as a major source of electric power. As a result, it has amassed large stores of spent nuclear fuel and, as in the United States, has experienced political pushback from populations around proposed central sites for the spent fuel.

South Korea also has a history of interest in nuclear weapons to deter North Korean attack. South Korea’s interest in spent fuel disposal and in a nuclear-weapon option account for the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute’s dogged interest in the separation of plutonium from its spent fuel. Plutonium separated from spent fuel can be used to make nuclear weapons.

Two US Energy Department nuclear laboratories, Argonne National Laboratory  and the Idaho National Laboratory have encouraged South Korea’s interest in plutonium separation because of their own interests in the process. Now, a secret, leaked, joint South Korean-US report shows deliberate blindness to the economic and proliferation concerns associated with plutonium separation and lays the basis for policies that would put South Korea on the threshold of being a nuclear-weapon state. 

Japan is the only non-nuclear-armed state that separates plutonium. The Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute has domestic political support, however, for its demand that South Korea have the same right to separate plutonium as Japan. 

In 2001 Argonne and Idaho National Laboratories (INL) persuaded an energy-policy task force led by then-Vice President Dick Cheney that pyroprocessing is “proliferation resistant” because the extracted plutonium is impure and unsuitable for nuclear weapons. On that basis, Argonne and INL were allowed to launch a collaboration on pyroprocessing research and development with Korea. The Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute was enthusiastic. It had been blocked from pursuing reprocessing R&D since it had been discovered in 1974 that the institute was part of a nuclear-weapon program.

At the end of the Bush administration, however, nonproliferation experts from six US national laboratories, including Argonne and INL, concluded that pyroprocessing is not significantly more proliferation resistant than conventional reprocessing because it would be relatively easy to remove the weakly radioactive impurities from the plutonium separated by pyroprocessing. The finding that pyroprocessing is not proliferation resistant precipitated a struggle between the Obama administration and South Korea’s government during their negotiations for a new US-Republic of Korea Agreement of Cooperation on the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy. The new agreement was required to replace the existing agreement, which was due to expire in 2014. But the negotiations stalemated when South Korea demanded the same right to reprocess the Reagan administration had granted Japan in 1987. 

At the beginning of September 2021, INL and the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute submitted a 10-year report on their joint fuel cycle study. Instead of making a policy recommendation on the future of pyroprocessing, however, the Korea-US Joint Nuclear Fuel Cycle Research Steering Committee decided to continue the joint research. A senior US official with knowledge of the situation, told that “at least three or four more years will be necessary for the two governments to be in a position to draw any actual conclusions related to the technical and economic feasibility and nonproliferation acceptability of pyroprocessing on the Korean Peninsula.”

Excerpts from  Frank N. von Hippel, Jungmin Kang, Why joint US-South Korean research on plutonium separation raises nuclear proliferation danger, January 13, 2022

Are We Transgressing the Planetary Boundaries?

There are an estimated 350,000 different types of manufactured chemicals on the global market. These include plastics, pesticides, industrial chemicals, chemicals in consumer products, antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals….The rate at which these pollutants are appearing in the environment far exceeds the capacity of governments to assess global and regional risks, let alone control any potential problems..

In 2009, an international team of researchers identified nine planetary boundaries that demarcate the remarkably stable state Earth has remained within for 10,000 years – since the dawn of civilization. These boundaries include greenhouse gas emissions, the ozone layer, forests, freshwater and biodiversity. The researchers quantified the boundaries that influence Earth’s stability, and concluded in 2015 that four boundaries have been breached. But the boundary for chemicals was one of two boundaries that remained unquantified.

This new research takes this a step further. The researchers say there are many ways that chemicals and plastics have negative effects on planetary health, from mining, fracking and drilling to extract raw materials to production and waste management.

Some of these pollutants can be found globally, from the Arctic to Antarctica, and can be extremely persistent…Global production and consumption of novel entities is set to continue to grow. The total mass of plastics on the planet is now over twice the mass of all living mammals, and roughly 80% of all plastics ever produced remain in the environment. Plastics contain over 10,000 other chemicals, so their environmental degradation creates new combinations of materials – and unprecedented environmental hazards. Production of plastics is set to increase and predictions indicate that the release of plastic pollution to the environment will rise too, despite huge efforts in many countries to reduce waste.

Excerpt from Safe planetary boundary for pollutants, including plastics, exceeded, say researchers, Stockholm Resilience Center Press Release, Jan. 18, 2022

For an alternative view on planetary boundaries see NY Times Article, 2015

After We Vacuum the Earth, We Vacuum the Moon

Chinese nuclear scientists are studying samples carried back by China’s mission to the the moon in 2019. One of those under the microscope at the Beijing Research Institute of Uranium Geology is a 50-milligram rock—approximately the size of a lentil—believed to contain an isotope called helium-3. The isotope… is thought by scientists to have the potential to one day provide safer nuclear energy in a fusion reactor, as it isn’t radioactive. Rare on earth, helium-3 is thought to be abundant on the moon.

While researchers in the U.S. and other nations have studied the isotope, China’s renewed pursuit is part of a decadeslong plan to establish itself as a leading space power, mirroring the country’s rising economic and strategic influence on Earth. Since being shut out of working with the U.S. space agency by law a decade ago, the country has invested heavily in its own program. China is still playing catch-up technologically but is seeking to gain an edge through its moon missions…

China now building the Silk Road to space,” said James Head, a professor of geological sciences at Brown University who has lectured at universities across China in the past few years. 

The theory that the moon might have abundant reserves of helium-3 goes back several decades. In 1986, scientists at the University of Wisconsin estimated that lunar soil could contain a million tons of the isotope, also known as He3. A byproduct of the sun’s intense heat, it is carried through the solar system by solar winds…

In the future, there could be machines that vacuum up the top layer of the moon’s surface, which could then be used to address Earth’s energy needs or to power moon bases for future missions…

Excerpts from Natasha Khan, Moon Dust Fuels China’s Pursuit of Space Power, WSJ, Dec. 14, 2021

Lunatics or Climate Fixers?

The ocean has already absorbed nearly one-third of the carbon emissions from human activities, and scientists hope it can shoulder even more of the burden. Ocean Iron fertilization is among the cheapest options. Ocean fertilization is a form of geoengineering  that involves adding iron to the upper layers of the ocean to stimulate phytoplankton activity  in an attempt to remove carbon from the atmosphere and, thus, abate global warming.

Photosynthetic plankton act like tropical rainforests, sucking CO2 from the atmosphere. Their populations are often limited by a scarcity of iron, which sifts into the ocean in windblown dust from deserts, in volcanic ash, and even from underwater hydrothermal vents. Extra iron would stimulate a bloom, the thinking goes, causing plankton to take up extra carbon. The carbon would sink into the depths in the form of dead plankton, or the feces or bodies of organisms that eat them. In theory, the carbon would be entombed for centuries.

Ocean scientists contended in 2021 that ocean fertilization  experiments were a priority and called for the United States to spend up to $290 million on even larger ones that would spread 100 tons of iron across 1000 square kilometers of ocean. Already, researchers next year plan to pour iron across a patch of the Arabian Sea (Center for Climate Repair at the University of Cambridge.)

But skeptics note that a recent survey of 13 past fertilization experiments found only one that increased carbon levels deep in the ocean. That track record is one reason why making iron fertilization a research priority is “barking mad,” says Wil Burns, an ocean law expert at Northwestern University. Stephanie Henson, a marine biogeochemist at the United Kingdom’s National Oceanography Centre, also worries about surprise consequences of the approach, likening it to the catastrophic introduction of rabbits to Australia ecology. “You could just imagine something like that happening in the oceans completely by accident.”

Excerpts from Warren Cornwall, To Draw Carbon, Ocean Fertilization Gets Another Look, Science, Dec. 17, 2021

The Other Middle East Crisis: Rivers are Drying

Protests in the Iranian city of Isfahan erupted in November 2021 due to a severe shortage of water, as the region continues to suffer from a year of low rainfall and drought. Thousands of farmers and others who supported them took to the streets in Isfahan in central Iran, expressing their dissatisfaction at the water shortages and urging the government to solve the crisis. They shouted “let Isfahan breathe again, revive Zayandeh Rud,” referring to the dried river which supplies their crops with water.

The drying up of the Zayandeh Rud river has not only been caused by drought, however, but also by the government’s diversion of water from the river to supply other areas and with a pipeline supplying water to Yazd province also having been damaged. Those incidences have contributed to the farms being left dry and the famers’ livelihoods being threatened.

The water shortages and the drying of the river come at a time when the region is suffering from a similar shortage, as rainfall has been low and temperatures have increased to make it one of the hottest and driest years recorded. ..Neighboring Iraq and Syria have also been expressed concern over the shortage of water this year… In November 201, a major reservoir in Syria also dried up completely, and was similarly due to a combination of climatic and structural causes.

Excerpts from Protests over water shortages erupt in Iran, as river dries up, Middle East Monitor, Nov. 21, 2021

The Stealth Burial of Nuclear Waste

The U.S. government’s underground nuclear waste repository received more than 200 shipments from federal laboratories and other sites around the nation in 2021.
Officials with the U.S. Energy Department announced the number in December 2021, noting that total shipments to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant have topped 13 000 since opening in 1999. Over more than 20 years, tons of Cold War-era waste have been stashed deep in the salt caverns that make up the repository. The shipments have included special boxes and barrels packed with lab coats, rubber gloves, tools and debris contaminated with plutonium and other radioactive elements.

The majority of shipments come from the decommissioning of legacy nuclear waste sites at the Idaho National Laboratory. More nuclear waste will be heading to the WIPP as the Biden Administration has approved a Trump rule that has redefined high-level nuclear waste. According to the new rule, what constitutes high-level radioactive waste  will be based on the waste’s radioactivity rather than how it was produced.

U.S. nuclear repository marks more than 200 shipments of waste in 2021, Associated Press, Dec. 30, 2021

The Forced Migration of Endangered Species

Rhino translocations have become a critical tool in the arsenal for the protection of these endangered animals. Recently, 30 white rhinos were flown into Rwanda from South Africa and introduced into the Akagera National Park, in what is the single largest translocation. 

In the late 19th century, southern white rhinos were almost on the brink of extinction. This was due to poaching and hunting. But in 1895 a small population of fewer than 100 individuals was discovered in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. After more than a century of protection and good management, there are now around 17,600 white rhinos (as of 2018) living in protected areas and private game reserves…However, this success story is being threatened by the illegal trade in horn. Between 2006 and 2020, 10,600 rhinos across the continent have been lost. With the exception of a few areas, rhinos are surviving in well protected, smaller national parks and reserves.

Why were rhinos translocated to Rwanda? Having a population in a Rwanda could create a secure new breeding stronghold in East Africa and help ensure the long-term survival of the species in the wild…

Any international translocation requires political support from national governments and conservation authorities and should be in full compliance with international agreements, such as CITES…Sourcing the animals is also an important aspect… South Africa has a vibrant wildlife industry based upon the buying and selling of wildlife. 

Catching and Translocating the Animals: A lot of time is spent on planning for this and ensuring the animals are treated as well as possible. Moving animals over thousands of kilometers is a serious endeavor. With 30 animals, chartered jumbo jets are the best way. This requires considerable veterinary and logistical coordination to capture the animals, load into crates, transport to the aircraft, load as quickly as possible, unload similarly, transport to the site and release into well-sited and secure bomas. 

Upon arrival, animals are put into holding bomas to get them adjusted to the local different foods that they’ll encounter…Once they’re in the new habitat, the next concern is security and making sure people can take care of them and monitor them.

Excerpts from Mike Knight, Africa: Moving African Rhinos – What It Takes to Translocate an Endangered Species, AllAfrica.com, Dec. 14, 2021

Global Microbiome Living on Plastics

The number of microbial enzymes with the ability to degrade plastic is growing, in correlation with local levels of plastic pollution. That is the finding of a study from Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, that measured samples of environmental DNA from around the globe. The results illustrate the impact plastic pollution is having on the environment, and hint at potential new solutions for managing the problem.

The study analyzed samples of environmental DNA from hundreds of locations around the world. The researchers used computer modelling to search for microbial enzymes with plastic-degrading potential, which was then cross-referenced with the official numbers for plastic waste pollution across countries and oceans. “Using our models, we found multiple lines of evidence supporting the fact that the global microbiome’s plastic-degrading potential correlates strongly with measurements of environmental plastic pollution – a significant demonstration of how the environment is responding to the pressures we are placing on it,” says Aleksej Zelezniak, Associate Professor in Systems Biology at Chalmers University of Technology. 

More enzymes in the most polluted areas: In other words, the quantity and diversity of plastic-degrading enzymes is increasing, in direct response to local levels of plastic pollution. In total, over 30,000 enzyme ‘homologues’ were found with the potential to degrade 10 different types of commonly used plastic. Homologues are members of protein sequences sharing similar properties. Some of the locations that contained the highest amounts were notoriously highly polluted areas, for example samples from the Mediterranean Sea and South Pacific Ocean…

The researchers believe that their results could potentially be used to discover and adapt enzymes for novel recycling processes…“The next step would be to test the most promising enzyme candidates in the lab to closely investigate their properties and the rate of plastic degradation they can achieve. From there you could engineer microbial communities with targeted degrading functions for specific polymer types,” explains Aleksej Zelezniak.

Plastic-degrading enzymes increasing in correlation with pollution, Chalmers University of Technology Press Release, Dec. 14, 2021

Detoxing the Fish of Our Lakes and Rivers

Fish populations appear to recover rapidly from mercury pollution once humans stop adding it to their environment. A 15-year study of a lake in Canada found that eight years after the metal’s supply ceased, concentrations of methylmercury – a highly toxic substance made from mercury by bacteria in aquatic ecosystems – fell by 76 per cent… 

“I can’t imagine a much faster recovery,” says Paul Blanchfield at government agency Fisheries and Oceans Canada, who led the research. The team are not suggesting the fish excrete the mercury quickly – the experiment in fact shows they hang on to it for a long time – but that quick turnover of generations sees concentrations fall fast when new pollution stops.

Mercury pollution is still a major global environmental problem, with small-scale gold mining and coal burning being the two biggest sources. Transported in the atmosphere and rained down on lakes and oceans, the metal’s accumulation in freshwater and marine species has raised concerns over the human health impact of eating fish.

Excerpts from Adam Vaughan, Freshwater fish can recover from mercury pollution in just a few years, New Scientist, Dec. 15, 2021

To Save the Congo Rainforest, We Must Save the People First

The Special Representative of the Secretary-General in the Democratic Republic of the Congo told the Security Council in December 2021  that “a lasting solution” to the violence” in Congo requires a broader political commitment to address the root causes of conflict.”  Bintou Keita argued that, for stability to return to eastern Congo, “the State must succeed in restoring and maintaining the confidence of the people in state’s ability to protect, administer, deliver justice and meet their basic needs.” 

Starting on November 30, 2021  the Congolese Armed Forces initiated joint military operations with the Ugandan army against the rebel Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in the east.  In May 2021, the Congolese authorities declared a state of siege in the provinces of Ituri and North Kivu, whose duration has just been extended for the 13th time

But the challenges facing the Government in implementing the state of siege highlight “the limits of a strictly military approach to the protection of civilians and the neutralization of armed groups.”  In fact, the period of the state of siege saw a 10 per cent increase in the number of violations and abuses of human rights in the country.  


According to the Special Representative, the humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate in the restive east, due to insecurity, epidemics, and limited access to basic services.  The number of internally displaced people stands at nearly 6 million, of which 51 per cent are women. This is the highest number of internally displaced people in Africa.  

The Special Representative pointed out the illegal exploitation of natural resources as “a major driver of conflict”, saying it must be addressed, and commended President Tshisekedi’s intervention at the COP26 Summit, where he committed to combat deforestation in the Congo Basin rainforest and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 21 per cent, by 2030….  

Excerpts from DR Congo: Limitations to ‘strictly military approach’ to stem violence, mission chief warns, UN News, Dec. 6, 2021

Nowhere to Go: Nuclear Waste Germany

Germany is to shut down its last nuclear reactors in 2022. However, the country still has no place to store the 27,000 cubic meters of highly radioactive material it has already produced, with the amount set to grow as power stations are decommissioned and dismantled. German authorities have set a deadline of 2031 to find a permanent storage location – but for now, the waste is being stored in temporary locations, much to the anger of local residents.

See Youtube video France24

Re-Growing Our Lost Tropical Forests

Scientists have concluded that tropical forests demonstrate high resilience, even after they are cut down, due to agriculture or pasture use, if they are left alone for 20 years.  According to the study published in December 2021. 

“Tropical forests are converted at alarming rates to other land uses yet they also have the potential to regrow naturally on abandoned agricultural fields and pastures. Widespread land abandonment because of fertility loss, migration, or alternative livelihood options has led to a rapid increase in the extent of regrowing forests. Currently, regrowth covers as much as 28% (2.4 million km2) of the neotropics alone. Regrowing secondary forests form a large and important component of human-modified tropical landscapes and have the potential to play a key role in biodiversity conservation, climate change mitigation, and landscape restoration. 

See Multidimensional tropical forest recovery, SCIENCE VOL. 374, NO. 6573, Dec. 9, 2021

What’s in that Suitcase? Endangered Turtles

Live animals, python skins and slimming pills made from crocodile blood are just a few of the items seized at world borders recently. In the space of a month, 29 big cats, 531 turtles, 336 reptiles, 1.4 million plant-derived products and 75,320kg of timber were found in luggage. 300 arrests were made. Many of the items are part of the world’s fourth biggest illegal market – the illegal wildlife trade. Despite decades of lawmakers’ crackdowns, it is still worth an estimated €17 billion annually.

The smuggled items were found as part of Operation Thunder 2021, which spanned 118 countries and the work of customs, police and wildlife enforcement agencies. The operation, coordinated by the World Customs Organisation (WCO) and INTERPOL, involved searching cars, boats and lorries with sniffer dogs and X-ray scanners. Law enforcement found that online platforms are being used to arrange trafficking, and illegal money transfers are used to enable money laundering.

Excerpt from Nichola Daunton, These are all the endangered species criminals tried to smuggle in just one month, Euronews, Dec. 1, 2021

See also Press Release of UNODC World Wildlife Crime

Why Crabs and Mussels Love Plastic Pollution

The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” is considered the world’s largest accumulation of ocean plastic. It’s so massive, in fact, that researchers found it has been colonized by species — hundreds of miles away from their natural home. The research, published in the journal Nature, found that species usually confined to coastal areas — including crabs, mussels and barnacles — have latched onto, and unexpectedly survived on, massive patches of ocean plastic.  As suitable habitat made of plastics now exists in the open ocean, coastal organisms can both survive at sea for years and reproduce, leading to self-sustaining coastal communities on the high seas!

But the mingling of the neuston and coastal species is “likely recent,” researchers said, and was caused largely because of the accumulation of “long-lived plastic rafts” that have been growing since the middle of the 20th century. Just by itself, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, located between California and Hawai’i, is estimated to have at least 79,000 tons of plastic within a 1.6 million-square-kilometer area. There are at least four other similar patches throughout the world’s oceans. Researchers expect that plastic waste is going to “exponentially increase,” and by 2050, there will be 25,000 million metric tons of plastic waste.  

For lead author Linsey Haram, the research shows that physical harm to larger marine species should not be the only concern when it comes to pollution and plastic waste. “The issues of plastic go beyond just ingestion and entanglement,” Haram said in a statement. “It’s creating opportunities for coastal species’ biogeography to greatly expand beyond what we previously thought was possible.” 

But that expansion could come at a cost. “Coastal species are directly competing with these oceanic rafters,” Haram said. “They’re competing for space. They’re competing for resources. And those interactions are very poorly understood.” There is also a possibility that expansions of these plastic communities could cause problems with invasive species. A lot of plastic found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, for example, is debris from the 2011 Tohoku tsunami in Japan, which carried organisms from Japan to North America. Over time, researchers believe, these communities could act as reservoirs that will provide opportunities for coastal species to invade new ecosystems. 

There are still many questions researchers say need to be answered about these new plastic-living communities — like how common they are and if they can exist outside the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — but the discovery could change ocean ecosystems on a global scale, especially as climate change exacerbates the situation. 

Excerpts from LI COHEN, There’s so much plastic floating on the ocean surface, it’s spawning new marine communities, CBS News, Dec. 2, 2021
BY LI COHEN

Battle for Storing Medical Nuclear Waste: Australia

Napandee, a 211 hectare property near the town of Kimba, has been acquired by the Australian  government and will be used to store low and medium-level nuclear waste. “This is still the right decision at the right site,” Resources Minister Keith Pitt said.  “It’s certainly got all of the right geological requirements, we have majority support from the local community and we should never forget that this has taken 40 years and I understand some 16 ministers,” he said.  “Fundamentally, for the local community of Kimba it’s been over six years of consultation.” The consultation culminated in a ballot which showed just over 60 per cent of Kimba residents supported the project.

However, the Barngarla traditional owners opposed the project and said they were not included in the consultation. “There have been significant and repeated grave problems with the government’s conduct regarding the site selection process,” a spokesperson for the Barngarla Determination Aboriginal Corporation said in a statement. “We remain confident that, once assessed by the Court, the declaration to locate the facility at Napandee on our Country will likely be overturned.”

According to the Australian minister, every Australian would need to use nuclear medicine at some point in their life. “If we are going to use this technology, it produces low-level radioactive waste and we have to deal with it and store it. This is the best option on the table.” “This is a facility that will last more than 100 years and it’s important for the country.” The Australian Radioactive Waste Agency, created to establish the Napandee facility, will start work on detailed designs.

Excerpts from Declan Gooch and Emma Pedler, Napandee chosen as nuclear waste storage site after ‘six years of consultation’, ABC, Nov. 29, 2021

The Limits of Green Energy: Wind Blades of Wood and Plastic

What does the deforestation of balsa wood in Ecuador’s Amazon region have to do with wind power generation in Europe? There is a perverse link between the two: a drive for renewable energy has boosted global demand for a prized species of wood that grows in the world’s largest rainforest. As Europe and China increase the construction of blades for wind turbines, balsa trees are being felled to accelerate an energy transition driven by the need to decarbonize the global economy.

In the indigenous territories of the Ecuadorian Amazon, people began to notice an uptick in international demand for balsa wood from 2018 onwards. Balsa is very flexible but tough at the same time, and offers a light yet durable option for long-term wind power production. The typical blades of a wind turbine are currently around 80 meters long, and the new generation of blades can extend up to 100 meters. That means about 150 cubic meters of wood are required to build a single unit, according to calculations by the United States National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Ecuador is the world’s main exporter of balsa wood, holding 75% of the global market. Major players include Plantabal S.A. in Guayaquil, which has around 10,000 hectares dedicated to the cultivation of balsa wood destined for export. With the boom in demand starting in 2018, this company and many others struggled to cope with the quantity of international orders. This increase has led directly to the deforestation of the Amazon. Irregular and illegal logging has proliferated by those who have reacted to the scarcity of wood grown for timber by chopping down the virgin balsa that grows on the islands and riverbanks of the Amazon

The impact on the indigenous people who live in the area has been as devastating as mining, oil and rubber were in their day…The Amazon’s defenders are calling for the wind turbine industry to implement strict measures to determine the origin of the wood used in turbine blades, and to prevent market pressure leading to deforestation. Ultimately, they say, balsa wood should be replaced by other materials…

In 2019, Ecuador’s balsa exports were worth almost €195 million, 30% more than the previous record from 2015. In the first 11 months of 2020, this jumped to €696 million.

Wind turbine blades are mainly made from polymethacrylamide (PMI) foam, balsa wood and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) foam…But The Spanish-German company Siemens-Gamesa..has  introduced blade designs using PET only, other competitors soon followed. Wood Mackenzie, a consultancy firm, forecasts that this “will increase from 20% in 2018 to more than 55% in 2023, while demand for balsa will remain stable…”

Today’s blades also present a problem for recycling. The first generation of wind turbines are reaching the end of their lives, and thousands will need to be dismantled… “But the blades represent a challenge due to their composite materials, as their recycling requires very specific processes…

Excerpts from How the wind power boom is driving deforestation in the Amazon, ElPais, Nov. 26, 2021

How to Lift Nuclear Submarines from Arctic Seabed

Projects aimed to improve nuclear safety are some of the few successful arenas for cooperation still going strong between the European Union and Russia…especially wiht regard to the two old Soviet submarines K-159 and K-27, both rusting on the Arctic seabed with highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel elements in their reactors…

“The sunken submarines K-27 and K-159 are the potential source of contamination of the Arctic, the riskiest ones,” Ambassador Jari Vilén of Filand explains. “Assessments made by the European Union together with Rosatom show that in 20-30 years’ time the metals will start corroding and there is a genuine risk of leakage. Therefore, lifting them in the coming decade is extremely important.”

“I’m very happy we are making progress and that a decision to make a technical review has been decided by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) through the Northern Dimension Environmental Partnership. Hopefully, when these technical reviews are done, we will come to a phase where we can make decisions on a lifting operation,” Vilén says with enthusiasm.

Lifting a nuclear submarine from the seabed is nothing new. It is difficult, but doable. In 2002, the Dutch salvage company Mammoet managed to raise the ill-fated “Kursk” submarine from the Barents Sea. A special barge was built with wires attached underneath. The wreak of “Kursk” was safely brought in and placed in a dry-dock where the decommissioning took place.

K-159 is a November-class that sank in late August 2003 while being towed in bad weather from the closed naval base of Gremikha on the eastern shores of the Kola Peninsula towards the Nerpa shipyard north of Murmansk. The two onboard reactors contain about 800 kilograms of spent nuclear fuel, with an estimated 5,3 GBq of radionuclides. A modeling study by the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research said that a pulse discharge of the entire Cesium-137 inventory from the two reactors could increase concentrations in cod in the eastern part of the Barents Sea up to 100 times current levels for a two-year period after the discharge. While a Cs-137 increase of 100 times in cod sounds dramatic, the levels would still be below international guidelines. But that increase could still make it difficult to market the affected fish.

K-27, the other submarine in urgency to lift, was on purpose dumped in the Kara Sea in 1982….

Lifting the dumped reactors from the Kara Sea, a price tag of nearly €300 million has been mentioned. The sum includes K-27 and K-159, but also the other dumped reactors from K-11, K-19 and K-140, as well as spent nuclear fuel from an older reactor serving icebreaker “Lenin”. “The value of the fishing stocks in the area is ruffly €1.4 billion annually,” he says.

Excerpts from Thomas Nilsen, EU willing to co-fund lifting of sunken nuclear subs from Arctic seabed, The Barents Observer, Nov. 22, 2021

Exchanging Nature for Crushing Debt

In 2020 tourism in Belized dried up, growth contracted sharply and public debt jumped from just under 100% GDO in 2019 to over 125%. That forced Belize,  into a debt restructuring…As part of the deal, concluded on November 5th, 2021 Belize bought back its only international bond, a $553m, at 55 cents on the dollar. It funded that with $364m of fresh money, arranged by The Nature Conservancy, an NGO, which is insured by the International Development Finance Corp, an American agency. The transaction is backed by the proceeds of a “blue bond” arranged by Credit Suisse, a bank. The payback is due over 19 years. It is called a blue bond because Belize has pledged to invest a large chunk of the savings into looking after the ocean. That includes funding a $23m endowment to support future marine-conservation projects and promising to protect 30% of its waters by 2026…

Debt-for-nature swaps are nothing new. Lenders have been offering highly indebted countries concessions in return for environmental commitments for decades. But these transactions have historically involved debt owed to rich countries, not commercial bondholders. As Lee Buchheit, a lawyer who specialises in sovereign-debt restructurings, points out, they were “negligible in size”. In total, the value of debt-for-climate and nature-swap agreements between 1985 and 2015 came to just $2.6bn, according to the United Nations Development Programme. Of the 39 debtor nations that benefited from the swaps, only 12 negotiated debts of over $30m. “It was really an exercise in public relations,” Mr Buchheit says….

Other poor countries are trying to move in the same direction. At the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow Ecuador’s president Guillermo Lasso proposed enlarging the country’s Galapagos nature reserve through a debt-for-nature swap…Yet no amount of creative dealmaking can distract from the grim truth: many emerging markets still suffer from crushing debts.

Excerpts from Debt-for Nature Swaps: Reef relief, Economist, Nov. 13, 2021

No Matter What they Say-Nobody Likes Nuclear Waste

The first stage of the process has been under way since November 2020 for the town of Suttsu and the village of Kamoenai assessing two municipalities in Hokkaido for their suitability to host a final disposal facility for high-level radioactive waste from nuclear power plants.  Under the government’s plan, the first-stage surveys take two years and will be followed by the second phase… which will include geophysical exploration, geological reconnaissance surveys and drilling surveys. Already stories about divisions and conflict over the surveys are emerging from the local communities.

The mayoral election of Suttsu in October 2021, for example, turned into a bitter and divisive political battle over the issue between the incumbent who decided to apply for the first-phase survey and a challenger who ran on opposition to the project. Some of the neighboring municipalities have enacted an ordinance to ban the entry of radioactive materials. Both the Hokkaido prefectural government and most of the local administrations around the two municipalities have declined to accept state subsidies related to the surveys. These actions have been driven by the fear that accepting the surveys will set in motion an unstoppable process leading to a permanent repository for nuclear waste.

The NUMO (Nuclear Waste Management Organization of Japan) and the METI (Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry)  have jointly held more than 100 meetings to explain the plan to local communities across the nation. Even though they have continued calling for localities to volunteer, no local governments except for the two in Hokkaido have responded.

Excerpts from Entire nation should share in disposal of spent nuke fuel, Asahi Shimbun, Nov. 22, 2021

The Mining Curse

Two poor, fragile, post-Soviet democracies, two spectacular holes in the ground. Mongolia’s Oyu Tolgoi, or “Turquoise Hill”, is a vast mine in the southern Gobi desert, just 80km from the Chinese border. Kumtor in the Tian Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan, operating since 1997, is if anything even more remote. Located beside a series of glaciers at 13,000 feet above sea level, it is the world’s second-highest gold mine.

It is hard to exaggerate the importance of these two mines to their respective economies. Once completed, Oyu Tolgoi will be the world’s fourth-biggest copper mine. When the contract with Rio Tinto, an Anglo-Australian mining giant, was first signed in 2009, Oyu Tolgoi was predicted to add five percentage points to Mongolia’s annual economic growth, which, for a while, it did. The mine has created 15,000 jobs directly and another 45,000 indirectly, for a Mongolian population of 3.3m. As for Kumtor, its owner, Centerra, a Canadian exploration company, is the country’s largest private investor. In a good year the mine generates a tenth of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP and is the biggest contributor to the state budget.

Both mines loom large in national life. Both foreign operators won sweet, initial deals when naïve young states opened their doors to foreign investment. Controversy surrounding the mines was thus inevitable. Oyu Tolgoi has long been controversial. Politicians often accuse Rio Tinto of fleecing the country…In Kyrgyzstan the goverment accuses Centerra of corruption, enriching politicians instead of the national budget. 

Accusations of being cheated are common in poor, resource-rich countries. With Oyu Tolgoi, the stand-off is more easily resolved….A recent independent review makes it hard for Rio to deny it bears some blame for delays and cost overruns in developing the mine…. In Kyrgyzstan the situation is bleaker. There, bribery and corruption are not incidental to business but central to it….Foreign investors too often blame “resource nationalism” for their woes in host countries. That is self-serving. After all, the resources usually belong to the state. It is reasonable for citizens to ask how best to benefit from them…. 

Excerpts from Banyan: Mine for the Taking, Economist, Nov. 6, 2021

The Right to Know from Space

Rebuilding an entire planet’s energy system is a big job…The most basic problem is knowing what, exactly, you are trying to rebuild. Academic-research groups, think-tanks, charities and other concerned organizations try to keep track of the world’s wind turbines, solar-power plants, fossil-fueled power stations, cement factories and so on. To this end, they rely heavily on data from national governments and big companies, but these are often incomplete. The most comprehensive database covering American solar-power installations, for instance, is thought to miss around a fifth of the photovoltaic panels actually installed on the ground.

In a paper published in Nature, a team of researchers demonstrate another way to keep tabs on the green-energy revolution. Dr Kruitwagen and his colleagues have put together an inventory of almost 69,000 big solar-power stations (defined as those with a rated capacity of 10kw of electricity or more) all over the world—more than four times as many as were previously listed in public databases. This new inventory includes their locations, the date they entered service and a rough estimate of their generating capacity…

Pictures came from two sets of satellites, Sentinel-2 and SPOT, run by the European Space Agency and Airbus respectively. These peer down on the world, recording visible light and also the infrared and ultraviolet parts of the spectrum. The images amounted to around 550 terabytes of data, spanning the period between 2016 and 2018. That is enough to fill more than a hundred desktop hard drives. Sifting through this many pictures by eye would have been impractical. That is where the second technological trend comes in. Dr Kruitwagen and his colleagues trained a machine-learning system to spot the solar panels for them.

More generally, Dr Kruitwagen hopes that his eye-in-the-sky approach—which, despite the planetary scale of the project, cost only around $15,000 in cloud-computing time—could presage more accurate estimates of other bits of climate-related infrastructure, such as fossil-fuel power stations, cement plants and terminals for ships carrying liquefied natural gas. The eventual result could be the assembly of a publicly available, computer-generated inventory of every significant bit of energy infrastructure on Earth. Quite apart from such a model’s commercial and academic value, he says, an informed public would be one better able to hold politicians’ feet to the fire. 

Excerpt from Solar-cell census: An accurate tally of the world’s solar-power stations, Economist, Oct. 30, 2021

Animal Rights March On

A dispute over the fate of hippos in Colombia has given rise to a federal court ruling in Ohio, United States that, for the first time in American law, recognizes animals as people. This should come as welcome news to the 100-plus hippos of Colombia’s Magdalena river. They are the offspring of four hippos smuggled into the country by Pablo Escobar, a drug lord. 

The surfeit of hippos has coated lakes with algae and could displace otters, manatees and endangered turtles. Hippos have begun wandering into villages, too—a potential peril for human persons. In 2020, Colombia’s government considered a cull, prompting a Colombian lawyer to take up the cause. The hippos, his lawsuit says, enjoy protection under Colombian law and must not be killed….

Judge Karen Litkovitz, the federal judge in Ohio (USA), does not get to decide the hippos’ fate. But on October 15, 2021 she agreed with the Animal Legal Defense Fund that the hippos are “interested persons” under a law permitting foreign litigants to gather evidence in America that may buttress their claims. Experts in non-surgical sterilization will be deposed for their insights on PZP, a contraceptive that could spare the hippos while dampening their growth.

America is not the first country to regard animals as legal persons. An Indian court cited the constitution in banning a bullfighting festival in 2014. A judge in Argentina ruled that Sandra, an orangutan, was a non-human person eligible for better environs than her concrete enclosure in a Buenos Aires zoo; she now luxuriates in a sanctuary in Florida. In 2020 a court in Islamabad, faced with cases involving stray dogs, an elephant and a bear, recognized the “right of each animal…to live in an environment that meets the latter’s behavioral, social and physiological needs”.

Judge Litkovitz’s decision is not couched in such sweeping terms. It remains to be seen whether other American courts take her cue in cases such as that of Happy, an elephant at the Bronx Zoo who has shown signs of self-awareness and misery. In 2022 New York’s highest court will consider whether the writ of habeas corpus—protection from unjust imprisonment—applies to Happy.

Excerpt from Animal rights: Pablo Escobar’s hippos lead a charge for animal rights, Economist, Oct. 30, 2021

A Shameless Love Affair with Nuclear Energy

Nuclear power once seemed like the world’s best hope for a carbon-neutral future. After decades of cost-overruns, public protests and disasters elsewhere, China has emerged as the world’s last great believer, with plans to generate an eye-popping amount of nuclear energy, quickly and at relatively low cost. 

The world’s biggest emitter, China’s planning at least 150 new nuclear reactors in the next 15 years, more than the rest of the world has built in the past 35. The effort could cost as much as $440 billion; as early as the middle of this decade, the country will surpass the U.S. as the world’s largest generator of nuclear power… It could also support China’s goal to export its technology to the developing world and beyond, buoyed by an energy crunch that’s highlighted the fragility of other kinds of power sources. Slower winds and low rainfall have led to lower-than-expected supply from Europe’s dams and wind farms, worsening the crisis, and expensive coal and natural gas have led to power curbs at factories in China and India. Yet nuclear power plants have remained stalwart…

And yet, even if China can develop the world’s most cost-effective, safe, flexible nuclear reactors, the U.S., India and Europe are unlikely to welcome their biggest global adversary into their power supplies. CGN has been on a U.S. government blacklist since 2019 for allegedly stealing military technology. In July, the U.K. began looking for ways to exclude CGN from its Sizewell reactor development. Iain Duncan Smith, Tory Member of Parliament, put it bluntly: “Nuclear is critical to our electric power, and we just can’t trust the Chinese.”

China’s ultimate plan is to replace nearly all of its 2,990 coal-fired generators with clean energy by 2060. To make that a reality, wind and solar will become dominant in the nation’s energy mix. Nuclear power, which is more expensive but also more reliable, will be a close third…Other countries would have to stretch to afford even a fraction of China’s investments. But about 70% of the cost of Chinese reactors are covered by loans from state-backed banks, at far lower rates than other nations can secure…

The most eager customer of China is Pakistan which, like China, shares a sometimes violently contested border with India. China’s built five nuclear reactors there since 1993, including one that came online this year and another expected to be completed in 2022. Other countries have been more hesitant. Romania last year canceled a deal for two reactors with CGN and opted to work with the U.S. instead.

Still, versions of China’s first homegrown reactor design, known as Hualong One, continue to operate safely in Karachi and Fujian province. And in September, China announced a successful test of a new, modular reactor that could be enticing overseas. China Huaneng Group Co. said it had achieved sustained nuclear reactions in a domestically designed, 200-megawatt reactor that heats helium, not water. By making the cooling process independent of external power sources, it should prevent the potential for the kind of massive meltdown that required the evacuation of more than 150,000 people in Fukushima.  China’s modular reactors, if successful, wouldn’t require new power plant construction. In theory, they could replace coal-fired generators in existing thermal power plants…

Excerpts from Dan Murtaugh and Krystal Chia, China’s Climate Goals Hinge on a $440 Billion Nuclear Buildout, Bloomberg, Nov. 2, 2021

Mining to Death for Uranium: the Navajo

The Navajo people have petitioned the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights arguing that the U.S. government failed to protect the human rights of Indigenous communities when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) licensed uranium mining on their territories.

The Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM)  petition states that when the NRC licensed Hydro Resources, Inc. (HRI) (now known as NuFuels) to operate uranium mining in the two Diné (Navajo) communities of Crownpoint and Churchrock it violated human rights guaranteed in the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, including the rights to life, health, benefits of culture, fair trial, and property.
According to the Navajo, the NRC licensed uranium mining  it knew would contaminate the groundwater that is an important resource of drinking water and cultural identity to communities that suffer increased risk of death and disease from historic uranium mining and milling the United States government not only tolerated but promoted.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights declared ENDAUM’s petition “admissible” in March 2021 and provided until October 21, 2021 for additional observations to be submitted. These additional observations were submitted in October, 2021. 

New Mexico Environmental Law Center, Press Release, Oct. 20, 2021

Case with annexes

A Breach Too Far: 413 PPM

The abundance of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere once again reached a new record in 2021, with the annual rate of increase above the 2011-2020 average. That trend has continued in 2021, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) Greenhouse Gas Bulletin.

Concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2), the most important greenhouse gas, reached 413.2 parts per million in 2020 and is 149% of the pre-industrial level. Methane (CH4) is 262% and nitrous oxide (N2O)  is 123% of the levels in 1750 when human activities started disrupting Earth’s natural equilibrium.

Roughly half of the CO2 emitted by human activities today remains in the atmosphere. The other half is taken up by oceans and land ecosystems. The Bulletin flagged concern that the ability of land ecosystems and oceans to act as “sinks” may become less effective in future, thus reducing their ability to absorb carbon dioxide and act as a buffer against larger temperature increase…Such changes are already happening, for example, transition of the part of Amazonia from a carbon sink to a carbon source

The Bulletin shows that from 1990 to 2020, radiative forcing – the warming effect on our climate – by long-lived greenhouse gases increased by 47%, with CO2 accounting for about 80% of this increase…The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere breached the milestone of 400 parts per million in 2015. And just five years later, it exceeded 413 ppm. 

“Carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for centuries and in the ocean for even longer. The last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was 3-5 million years ago, when the temperature was 2-3°C warmer and sea level was 10-20 meters higher than now. But there weren’t 7.8 billion people then,” said Prof. Taalas.

Excerpt from Greenhouse Gas Bulletin: Another Year Another Record, WMO, Oct. 25, 2021

Repairing Damaged Coral Reefs

Rather than blocking waves, as a sea wall does, a reef slows them, dissipating their energy before they reach land. One estimate, from the University of California, Santa Cruz and the Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Centre, suggests natural reefs prevent $1.8bn a year of flood damage in America alone.

While natural reefs take centuries to grow, hybrid versions can be conjured up in months. The idea began with Wolf Hilbertz, an architect with an interest in marine biology. In the 1970s Hilbertz developed a technique that uses submerged electrodes to run electrical currents through seawater. This precipitates calcium carbonate and magnesium hydroxide out of the seawater, forming limestone similar to that of natural reefs. The artificial reef can become the substrate upon which a natural coral ecosystem develops…Later work with Thomas Goreau, a marine biologist, produced both a catchy name—“Biorock”—and the idea of using the stuff as the basis of coral reefs, and, in particular, for repairing damaged reefs.

In 1996 the Global Coral Reef Alliance, a charity, began using Biorock for reef repairs by growing a six-metre structure in the Maldives. Other repairs have followed in Indonesia, Jamaica and Mexico. The Pemuteran Coral Reef Restoration Project, in Bali, is more than 300 metres long and includes dozens of “nurseries” in which Biorock acts as nuclei for the natural extension of the reef….DARPA a research agency run by America’s Department of Defense, also sees hybrid reefs as a means of coastal defence—in this case protecting the country’s seaside military installations. Lori Adornato, head of DARPA’s “Reefense” project, says the goal is a hybrid reef-type system which will be maintenance-free and self-repairing. Reefense therefore involves not only creating reefs and measuring their effectiveness, but also attracting and fostering appropriate organisms to sustain the reefs’ health, ensuring they can survive even when natural reefs are suffering.

Excerpts from Ocean Reefs: Hybrid Vigor, Economist, Sept. 11, 2021

How to Relocate a Whole Nation

Small island states will not, most likely, be swallowed by the sea… In research published in 2010, Paul Kench measured the size of 27 atolls over a period of decades and found that while 14% had shrunk and a couple had disappeared, 43% stayed the same size and another 43% became bigger. Many of the ring-shaped coral reefs have been able to adapt to sea-level rise, changing shape as sediment is eroded and pushed around. Tuvalu’s land surface, for instance, increased by 3% between 1971 and 2014 despite a rise in the local sea level of 4mm a year, twice the global average for that period…

But there are other, more immediate effects of climate change that threaten the lives and livelihoods of the citizens of these countries. They are less arresting, harder to explain and, as in the changing shape and size of islands, sometimes counterintuitive. But the upshot is the same: the countries may soon become uninhabitable.

One is “king tides”, high tides that briefly but entirely inundate the narrow strips of low-lying land that comprise most atoll, are becoming more frequent. The saltwater can kill crops such as banana and papaya and seeps into groundwater, making it unfit to drink

There are also ways to keep islands habitable: Kiribati plans to dredge its lagoons and use the sand to raise the surrounding islands higher above the sea. Tuvalu has embarked on a land-reclamation project. But the spectre of climate change makes it harder to drum up investment for such schemes. “I am trying to change the minds of the many people who say, ‘We cannot invest in your country, you’re finished’,” says Kiribati’s Mr Tito.

The depressing long-term solution may be to move. The Marshall Islands hopes to renegotiate its post-colonial “Compact of Free Association” with America, which expires in 2023, to ensure a permanent right of residence in the United States for all Marshallese. Tuvalu has no such option. Maina Talia, a climate activist, thinks that the government should take Fiji up on its offer of a home where Tuvaluans could practice the same culture rather than “be dumped somewhere in Sydney’‘.

Earlier this year, the government of Tuvalu, which until recently insisted that there would be no Plan B, established a new un initiative. Its aim is to work with “like-minded countries” to figure out how and where such countries could be relocated, how they could continue to function ex-situ, and whether they could still lay claim to vast exclusive economic zones if their land disappeared under water.

Relocating a country would raise other big questions, too, for both the international system and the way in which people think about statehood. “How to prepare to move a nation in dignity, that has never been done before,” says Kamal Amakrane, a migration expert whose ideas helped spark the UN initiative. 

Excerpt from Moving story: Pacific countries face more complex problems than sinking, Economist, August 7, 2021

The Northern Frontier: Who’s Taking Advantage of Climate Change?

Owing to climate change…the share of boreal land that can support farming could increase from 8% to 41% in Sweden. It could increase from 51% to 83% in Finland. Efforts to farm these areas will alarm people who value boreal forests for their own sake. And cutting down such forests and ploughing up the soils that lie beneath them will release carbon. But the climatic effects are not as simple as they might seem. Northern forests absorb more heat from the sun than open farmland does, because snow-covered farmland reflects light back into space…

The fact that felling boreal forests may not worsen climate change, though, says nothing about the degree to which it could affect biodiversity, ecosystem services or the lives of forest dwellers, particularly indigenous ones.

Some governments are already keen to capitalize on climate change. Russia’s has long talked of higher temperatures as a boon. President Vladimir Putin once boasted that they would enable Russians to spend less money on fur coats and grow more grain. In 2020 a “national action plan” on climate change outlined ways in which the country could “use the advantages” of it, including expanding farming. Since 2015 Russia has become the world’s largest producer of wheat, chiefly because of higher temperatures.

Russia’s government has started leasing thousands of square kilometers of land in the country’s far east to Chinese, South Korean and Japanese investors. Much of the land, which was once unproductive, is now used to grow soybeans. Most are imported by China, helping the country reduce its reliance on imports from America. Sergey Levin, Russia’s deputy minister of agriculture, has predicted that soya exports from its far-eastern farmlands may reach $600m by 2024. That would be nearly five times what they were in 2017. The government of Newfoundland and Labrador, a province on the north-eastern tip of Canada, is also trying to promote the expansion of agriculture into lands covered by forests…

All told, the northern expansion of farmland will only go some way towards mitigating the damage climate change may do to agriculture. The societies that will benefit from it are mostly already wealthy. Poor places, which rely much more heavily on income from exporting agricultural produce, will suffer.

Excerpts from Farming’s New Frontiers: Agriculture, Economist, August 28, 2021

When the Cat’s Away the Mice Pollute

Police don’t share schedules of planned raids. Yet America’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not seem convinced of the value of surprise in deterring bad behavior. Every year it publishes a list of dates, spaced at six-day intervals, on which it will require state and local agencies to provide data on concentrations of harmful fine particulate matter (pm2.5), such as soot or cement dust…

A new paper by Eric Zou of the University of Oregon makes use of satellite images to spy on polluters at times when they think no one is watching. NASA, America’s space agency, publishes data on the concentration of aerosol particles—ranging from natural dust to man-made toxins—all around the world, as seen from space. For every day in 2001-13, Mr Zou compiled these readings in the vicinity of each of America’s 1,200 air-monitoring sites.

Although some stations provided data continuously, 30-50% of them sent reports only once every six days. For these sites, Mr Zou studied how aerosol levels varied based on whether data would be reported. Sure enough, the air was consistently cleaner in these areas on monitoring days than it was the rest of the time, by a margin of 1.6%. Reporting schedules were almost certainly the cause….The size of this “pollution gap” differed by region. It was biggest in parts of Appalachia and the Midwest with lots of mining, and in the northern Mountain West, where paper and lumber mills are common.

The magnitude of the gap also depended on the cost of being caught. Every year, the EPA produces a list of counties whose average air quality falls below minimum standards. The punishments for inclusion are costly: factories become subject to burdensome clean-technology requirements, and local governments can be fined. When firms risked facing sanctions, they seemed to game the system more aggressively. In counties that exceeded the pm2.5 limit in a given month, the pollution gap in the following month swelled to 7%. In all other cases, it was just 1.2%….

Excerpts from Poorly devised regulation lets firms pollute with abandon: We Were Expecting you, Economist, Sept. 4, 2021

Eradicating Old Cities and their Populations

The fighters of Islamic State…raided the tombs of Assyrian kings in Nineveh, blew up Roman colonnades in Palmyra and sold priceless relics to smugglers. But their vandalism was on a modest scale compared with some of the megaprojects that are habitually undertaken by many Middle Eastern government… Iraq’s government began to build the Makhoul dam. Once complete, it is likely to flood Ashur—and another 200 historical sites.

Similar archaeological tragedies have occurred across the region, mainly thanks to the appetite of governments for gigantism in the name of modernization…The re-landscaping displaces people as well as erasing their heritage, sometimes as a kind of social engineering….

Egypt’s dictator, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has bulldozed swathes of Cairo, the old capital, to make way for motorways, flyovers and shiny skyscrapers that line the road to the new administrative capital he is building. To ease congestion he has scythed a thoroughfare named Paradise through the City of the Dead, a 1,000-year-old necropolis that is a un-designated world heritage site. Hundreds of tombs were destroyed. He has turfed out tens of thousands of people from their homes in Boulaq, along the Nile, calling it slum clearance. This was where Cairo’s old port prospered in Ottoman times. Instead of rehabilitating it, Mr Sisi is letting property magnates carpet the area with high-rise apartment buildings. Mr Sisi has allowed investors from the United Arab Emirates to build a mini-Dubai on Cairo’s largest green space, a nature reserve on al-Warraq island. Its 90,000 residents will be shunted off, mainly to estates on the city’s edge. Protesters have been condemned as Islamist terrorists and sent to prison, many for 15 years…

Some rulers have security in mind when they bulldoze history. Mr Sisi can send in the tanks faster on wider roads. Removing Egypt’s poor from city centres may curb the risk of revolution. “They know that poor areas revolted in 2011,” says Abdelrahman Hegazy, a Cairene city planner. “They’re afraid of population density.” During Syria’s current civil war, President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian patrons ruined parts of the old cities of Homs and Aleppo, treasure troves of antiquity that were also rebel strongholds, with relentless barrel-bombing….

Excerpts from Bulldozing history: Arab states are wrecking old treasures, Economist, Sept. 4, 2021

Tracking and Removing Polluting Space Junk

At orbital speeds a tennis-ball-sized piece of space junk packs enough energy to obliterate a satellite…Even tiny bits of debris can do damage. In May 2021 the Canadian Space Agency said an untracked piece of junk had punched a hole 5mm across in Canadarm2, a robotic limb attached to the International Space Station (ISS).

As orbiting objects multiply, the danger grows. Roughly a dozen sizeable pieces of space debris break up every year as a result of collisions, exploding rocket fuel, or the rupturing of pressurized tanks or old batteries. Solar radiation chips off bits of paint and metal…Today there 4,500 active satellites orbiting Earth and this does not include defunct satellites…There could be 100,000 active satellites in orbit by the end of the decade…

Radars operated by the US Department of Defense have improved ‘space situational awareness’…One big advance has been “Space Fence”. This is a system built in the Marshall Islands for America’s air force. It is billed as the world’s most advanced radar…In April 2021, LeoLabs, a firm in Silicon Valley, switched on its fourth debris-tracking radar station. ..LeoLabs sells data to satellite operators, space agencies, America’s armed forces and insurers keen to calculate better actuarial tables for spacecraft….

Besides using radar, debris can also be tracked optically. In collaboration with Curtin University, in Perth, Lockheed Martin runs FireOpal, a system of 20 cheap cameras aimed at the sky from various parts of Australia. For several hours at dawn and dusk, when these cameras are in the dark but sunlight still illuminates debris orbiting above, the cameras take pictures every ten seconds. The closer an object, the more it appears to move relative to the stars, allowing triangulation of its position…fire

Lasers are another option….For finding stuff in high orbits, though, neither lasers nor radars are much help. But telescopes work. ExoAnalytic Solutions, a Californian firm, tracks junk up to 170,000km away—nearly halfway to the Moon—using instruments “just laying on the shelves” at astronomy shops...Northstar Earth & Space, a new firm in Montreal, is to raise money to build, at $25m a pop, three 100kg satellites that will use telescopic cameras to track junk from orbit..

Naturally, this orbital-tracking technology has military value as well. Knowing objects’ orbits can reveal much about an adversary’s capabilities—including, perhaps, orbital combat. Movements that represent any deviation from normal patterns are most telling…To illustrate why, he points to an object that had been considered to be just a piece of debris from a Russian military launch. In May 2014 the “debris” sprang to life. Its movements since then have fuelled fears that it could be an anti-satellite weapon. Whether other such “sleepers” are hidden in plain sight among the clouds of rubbish orbiting Earth remains to be seen. 

Excerpts from Orbital housekeeping: Tracking space debris is a growing business, Economist, Sept. 18, 2021

How to Suck Carbon and Convert it to Rocks

The Orca carbon-capture plant, just outside Reykjavik in Iceland, has switched on its fans and began sucking carbon dioxide from the air since September 2021. The sound was subtle—a bit like a gurgling stream. But the plant’s creators hope it will mark a big shift in humanity’s interaction with the climate. Orca is, for now, the largest installation in the infant “direct air capture” industry, which aims to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. When sealed underground such CO2 counts as “negative emissions”—an essential but underdeveloped method for tackling global warming.

Thus, the full operation extracts CO2 from air and turns it to rock. Trials have shown that Icelandic basalts can sequester CO2 in solid rock within two years. Power comes from a nearby geothermal power station….One catch is volume. Orca will capture 4,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, out of around 35bn tonnes produced by burning fossil fuels. Another is cost. It costs Orca somewhere between $600-800 to sequester one tonne of carbon dioxide, and the firm sells offset packages online for around $1,200 per tonne. The company thinks it can cut costs ten-fold through economies of scale. But there appears to be no shortage of customers willing to pay the current, elevated price. Even as Orca’s fans revved up, roughly two-thirds of its lifetime offering of carbon removals had already been sold. Clients include corporations seeking to offset a portion of their emissions, such as Microsoft, Swiss Re as well as over 8,000 private individuals.

Climeworks is not alone in having spotted the opportunity. Using different chemistry, Carbon Engineering, a Canadian company, is gearing up to switch on its own carbon-scrubbing facilities. It will take more than these pioneer engineers and financiers to build a gigatonne-sized industry. But the fans are turning. 

Excerpts from Removing carbon dioxide from the air: The world’s biggest carbon-removal plant switches on, Economist, Sept. 18, 2021

Keep Killing Environmental Defenders

A report released by Global Witness in September 2021 reveals that 227 land and environmental activists were murdered in 2020 for defending their land and the planet. That constitutes the highest number ever recorded for a second consecutive year…The figures show the human cost of the destruction wrought by exploitative industries and corporations. At least 30% of recorded attacks were reportedly linked to resource exploitation – across logging, hydroelectric dams and other infrastructure, mining, and large-scale agribusiness. Logging was the industry linked to the most murders with 23 cases – with attacks in Brazil, Nicaragua, Peru and the Philippines…

Colombia was once again the country with the highest recorded attacks, with 65 defenders killed in 2020. A third of these attacks targeted indigenous and afro-descendant people, and almost half were against small-scale farmers. In 2020 the disproportionate number of attacks against indigenous communities continued – with over a third of all fatal attacks targeting indigenous people. Attacks against indigenous defenders were reported in Mexico, Central and South America, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia. Nicaragua saw 12 killings – rising from 5 in 2019, making it the most dangerous country per capita for land and environmental defenders in 2020.

Excerpt from  LAND AND ENVIRONMENTAL DEFENDERS, Global Witness Press Release, Sept. 13, 2021

A New Page in History of Nuclear Energy?

A new page in the history of nuclear energy could be written this September 2021, in the middle of the Gobi Desert, in the north of China. At the end of August 2021, Beijing announced that it had completed the construction of its first thorium-fueled molten-salt nuclear reactor, with plans to begin the first tests of this alternative technology to current nuclear reactors within the next two weeks…

The Chinese reactor could be the first molten-salt reactor operating in the world since 1969, when the US abandoned its Oak Ridge National Laboratory facility in Tennessee. “Almost all current reactors use uranium as fuel and water, instead of molten salt and thorium,” which will be used in China’s new plant. These two “new” ingredients were not chosen by accident by Beijing: molten-salt reactors are among the most promising technologies for power plants

With molten-salt technology, “it is the salt itself that becomes the fuel”….The crystals are mixed with nuclear material – either uranium or thorium – heated to over 500°C to become liquid, and are then be able to transport the heat and energy produced. Theoretically, this process would make the installations safer. “Some accident risks are supposedly eliminated because liquid burning avoids situations where the nuclear reaction can get out of control and damage the reactor structures.”

There’s another advantage for China: this type of reactor does not need to be built near watercourses, since the molten salts themselves “serve as a coolant, unlike conventional uranium power plants that need huge amounts of water to cool their reactors”.  As a result, the reactors can be installed in isolated and arid regions… like the Gobi Desert.

Thorium belongs to a famous family of rare-earth metals that are much more abundant in China than elsewhere; this is the icing on the cake for Chinese authorities, who could increase its energy independence from major uranium exporting countries, such as Canada and Australia, two countries whose diplomatic relations with China have collapsed in recent years.

According to supporters of thorium, it would also a “greener” solution. Unlike the uranium currently used in nuclear power plants, burning thorium does not create plutonium, a highly toxic chemical element…

Among the three main candidates for nuclear reaction – uranium 235, uranium 238 and thorium – the first is “the only isotope naturally fissile”, Sylvain David explained. The other two must be bombarded with neutrons for the material to become fissile (able to undergo nuclear fission) and be used by a reactor: a possible but more complex process. Once that is done on thorium, it produces uranium 233, the fissile material needed for nuclear power generation….”This is an isotope that does not exist in nature and that can be used to build an atomic bomb,” pointed out Francesco D’Auria.

Excerpts from Why China is developing a game-changing thorium-fueled nuclear reactor, France24, Sept. 12, 2021

Mobile Nuclear Energy for the Arctic: Dream to Reality

Four small modular reactors (SMRs) will power the huge Baimskaya copper and gold mining development in the Russian Arctic, according to an agreement signed by Rosatom subsidiary Atomflot…Baimskaya is one of the world’s largest mineral deposits and is very rich in copper and gold. However, development of the remote site in Russia’s eastern Chukotka region demands a complex multi-partner plan involving the Russian government, the regional government and developers…

Nuclear power already plays a role in Baimskaya’s development as early facilities there are powered by the Akademik Lomonosov floating nuclear power plant at Pevek. KAZ Minerals said the plant will supply up to 20 MWe of nuclear power to the mine during its construction phase….Based on the agreement, two additional floating power plants will provided, each with two RITM-200M reactors. The first two should be in operation at Cape Nagloynyn by the beginning of 2027, the third in 2028 and the final one at the start of 2031….

Excerpts from SMRs to power Arctic development, World Nuclear News, Sept. 3, 2021

The $22 Trillion Global Carbon Market

Two of the world’s biggest oil companies, Royal Dutch Shell  and BP already have significant carbon-emissions trading arms, thanks to a relatively well-developed carbon market in Europe. Big carbon emitters such as steel producers receive emission allowances, and can buy more to stay under European emissions guidelines. Companies that fall below those limits can sell their excess carbon-emissions allowances.

Carbon traders get in the middle of those transactions, seeking to profit from even small moves in the price of carbon and sometimes betting on the direction of prices. The value of the world’s carbon markets—including Europe and smaller markets in places such as California and New Zealand—grew 23% last year to €238 billion, equivalent to $281 billion.

That is small compared with the world’s multitrillion-dollar oil markets and to other heavily traded energy markets, such as natural gas or electricity. But growth potential exists, the industry says. Wood Mackenzie, an energy consulting firm, estimates a global carbon market could be worth $22 trillion by 2050… An experienced carbon trader’s base salary can be roughly $150,000 to $200,000, although a lot of compensation occurs via bonuses, traders said…. BP’s overall annual trading profits were between $3.5 billion and $4 billion during the past two years, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Excerpts from Sarah McFarlane, Energy Traders See Big Money in Carbon-Emissions Markets, WSJ, Sept. 9, 2021

The 17 000 Nuclear Objects Dumped in the Kara Sea


“Having the exact coordinates for the dumped container with the nuclear reactors from K-19 submarine is undoubtedly good news,” says nuclear safety expert Andrey Zolotkov. Zolotkov hopes for risk assessments to be carried out soon with the aim to see how the nuclear reactors could be lifted out of the maritime environment and brought to a yard for safe decommissioning…More than 50 years have passed since the dumping.

In the so-called “White Book” on dumped nuclear objects, originally published by President Boris Yeltsin’s environmental advisor Alexei Jablokov, the dumping of the submarine’s two reactors is listed for the Abrosimova Bay on the east coast of the Kara Sea, but exact location hasn’t been confirmed.

It was in August 2021 that the the crew on “Akademik M. Keldysh” with the help of sonars and submersibles found the container. Both marine researchers, oceanology experts from Russia’s Academy of Science and representatives of the Ministry of Emergency Situations are working together in the expedition team.

K-19 is one of the most infamous nuclear-powered submarines sailing for the Soviet navy’s Northern Fleet. In July 1961 the reactor lost coolant after a leak in a pipe regulating the pressure to the primary cooling circuit. The reactor water started boiling causing overheating and fire. Crew members managed to extinguish the fire but had big problems fixing the leak in an effort to save the submarine from exploding. Many of them were exposed to high doses of radioactivity before being evacuated to a nearby diesel submarine sailing in the same area of the North Atlantic. Eight of the crew members who had worked on the leak died of radiation poisoning within a matter of days.

The submarine was towed to the Skhval shipyard (No. 10) in Polyarny. Later, the reactor compartment was cut out and a new installed. The two damaged reactors, still with spent nuclear fuel, were taken north to the Kara Sea and dumped. Keeping the heavily contaminated reactors at the shipyard was at the time not considered an option.

In the spring of 2021, Russia’s Foreign Ministry invited international experts from the other Arctic nations to a conference on how to recover sunken radioactive and hazardous objects dumped by the Soviet Union on the seafloor east of Novaya Zemlya. Moscow chairs the Arctic Council for the 2021-2023 period. 

The two reactors from the K-19 submarine are not the only objects posing a risk to marine environment. In fact, no other places in the world’s oceans have more radioactive and nuclear waste than the Kara Sea. Reactors from K-11 and K-140, plus the entire submarine K-27 and spent uranium fuel from one of the old reactors of the “Lenin” icebreaker are also dumped in the same sea. While mentality in Soviet times was «out of sight, out of mind», the Kara Sea seemed logical. Ice-covered most of the year, and no commercial activities. That is changing now with rapidly retreating sea ice, drilling for oil-, and gas, and increased shipping…Additional to the reactors, about 17,000 objects were dumped in the Kara Sea in the period from the late 1960s to the early 1990s.

Excerpts from Thomas Nilsen, Expedition finds reactors 56 years after dumping, The Barents Observer, Sept. 2, 2021

Measuring Methane Emissions

The American gas industry faces growing pressure from investors and customers to prove that its fuel has a lower-carbon provenance to sell it around the world. That has led the top U.S. gas producer, EQ , and the top exporter, Cheniere Energy to team up and track the emissions from wells that feed major shipping terminals. The companies are trying to collect reliable data on releases of methane—a potent greenhouse gas increasingly attracting scrutiny for its contributions to climate change—and demonstrate they can reduce these emissions over time.

“What we’re trying to really do is build the trust up to the end user that our measurements are correct,” said David Khani, EQT’s chief financial officer. “Let’s put our money where our mouth is.” Natural gas has boomed world-wide over the past few decades as countries moved to supplant dirtier fossil fuels such as coal and oil. It has long been touted as a bridge to a lower-carbon future. But while gas burns cleaner than coal, gas operations leak methane, which has a more potent effect on atmospheric warming than carbon dioxide, though it makes up a smaller percentage of total greenhouse gas emissions.

Investors, policy makers and buyers of liquefied natural gas, known as LNG, are rethinking the fuel’s role in their energy mix …Those concerns, pronounced in Europe and increasingly in Asia, are a problem for LNG shippers, as some of their customers signal plans to ease gas consumption over time…Nearly every industry now faces some pressure to reduce its carbon footprint, as investors focus more on ESG—or environmental, social and governance—issues and push companies for trustworthy emissions data. But the pressure has become particularly acute for oil-and-gas companies, whose main products contribute directly to climate change.

The companies and researchers plan to test drones, specialized cameras that can see methane gas, and other technologies across about 100 wells in the Marcellus Shale in the northeast U.S., the Haynesville Shale of East Texas and Louisiana, and the Permian Basin of West Texas and New Mexico. EQT has said it would spend $20 million over the next few years to replace leaky pneumatic devices, which help move fluids from wells to production facilities and water tanks, with electric-drive valves, executives said. They expect that will cut about 80% of the company’s methane emissions. The company also began exclusively using electric-powered hydraulic fracturing equipment last year.

Excerpts from Collin Eaton Frackers, Shippers Eye Natural-Gas Leaks as Climate Change Concerns Mount, WSJ, Aug. 13, 2021

Amazon Deforestation: Putting a Number on Climate Damage

In April 2021, the Brazilian Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office filed a public civil action against a rural landowner, seeking the landowner’s accountability for alleged illegal deforestation connected to breeding cattle in the Amazon….Aside from demanding compensation for environmental damages, collective damages, as well as compensation due to the profits illegally obtained in the logging process, the prosecutor required that the defendant pay compensation for climate damages resulting from the deforestation, something until now unwitnessed in cases of this sort in Brazil. N

By employing a carbon calculator software developed by IPAM, the Amazonian Research Institute, the Prosecutor’s Office calculated how much carbon was expected to have been released into the atmosphere per hectare of deforestation in that particular area. With that information, knowing the extension of the deforestation and using the carbon pricing practiced by the Amazon Fund, the Prosecutor’s Office came to the conclusion that the defendant was liable for a BRL 44.7 million compensation for climate damages.

Excerpts from Climate litigation in Brazil: new strategy from prosecutors on climate litigation against private entities, Mayer/Brown, June 21, 2021

Africa’s Single Electricity Market: Pools and Mini-Grids

Given this the magnitude of the energy access problem in Africa, a continent-wide risk-guarantee scheme should be established, ideally by a combination of African and other multilateral lending institutions. Such an integrated approach, through which overall savings can outweigh risk premia  could be articulated under the aegis of the African Single Electricity Market, launched in early February 2021 with the main goal of harmonizing regulatory and technical aspects of electricity generation, transmission, and distribution across the continent…

Most electricity projects in Africa are undertaken by foreign developers, notably European, Chinese, and United States companies, owing to their experience and, especially, their ability to secure financing. As a result, African governments have introduced different types of so-called local-content requirements, namely obligations concerning local employment, procurement of local goods and services, and the transfer of technologies and know-how, to which foreign investors have to abide. In countries such as Kenya and Nigeria, these requirements are defined through quantitative targets, whereas in other countries, such as Uganda and Zambia, they take the form of qualitative goals….

Power pooling, through cross-border trade in electric power, helps reduce electricity bills and enhances the reliability of electricity supply. Regional power pools, based increasingly on renewable energy supplies, are now possible across most of the African continent. Nonetheless, additional efforts are needed to reap the full benefits of power pooling….

South Africa is the main electricity producer for the Southern African power pool, facilitated by the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Given the challenges that the country is increasingly facing to meet its domestic demand for electricity, and the sharp decreases in cost of solar, wind, and energy storage, the case for relying on solar and wind energy–powered electricity generation becomes stronger in the region. Yet, at present, for both renewable energy and electric-power transmission, many of the investment discussions in the SADC region focus on large dams, which have been the technology of choice for decades. Concentrating solar power, a technology that generates electricity from the heat obtained by concentrating solar energy (in contrast to converting solar energy directly into electricity, as photovoltaic systems do), is already being deployed in South Africa…. Concentrating solar power technology can help shift the balance away from hydropower and toward solar energy, but only to the extent that stronger financial incentives are in place, compared to those introduced thus far…

To date, the members of the Maghreb Electricity Committee (COMELEC), Northern Africa’s power pool, have only engaged in cross-border trade with the Iberian Peninsula, across the Mediterranean Sea (Spain currently exports electricity to Morocco). As concentrating solar power in Morocco develops, the country plans to export electricity to Spain and possibly Portugal. Tunisia and Egypt are planning similar export arrangements (with Italy and Greece, respectively). Against this background, COMELEC has pledged to launch, in 2025, a common electricity market for its five members…

Both the Eastern Africa Power Pool (EAPP) and the West African Power Pool (WAPP) originate from preexisting cross-border arrangements aimed at promoting cooperation on energy issues. In both regions, cooperation thus far has been limited to bilateral agreements, such as the lines linking Kenya with Ethiopia and Ghana with Burkina Faso….The Central African Power Pool (CAPP) remains underdeveloped. Poverty and other developmental challenges in the region limit the size of the electricity market, thus inflating prices.

In moderately populated areas, where both grid extension and deployment of a relatively large number of stand-alone electricity-generation systems would be prohibitively expensive, off-grid mini-grids are the most economical electrification option in most cases. The so-called third-generation minigrids, which combine photovoltaic solar systems and batteries with or without a back-up diesel-powered electricity generator, require less than 2 weeks of scheduled maintenance per year. Such a high level of reliability makes it possible to incentivize off-grid mini-grid deployment through performance-based subsidies.  For example, with World Bank backing, Nigeria’s rural electrification agency pays off-grid mini-grid developers US$ 350 per connection, provided that the customer has had a steady supply of power for at least 3 months. Similarly, the reliability of third-generation mini-grids allows developers to offer customers a contract that includes, in addition to the electricity connection, the option to purchase income-generating appliances, such as machines for welding, milling, and rice hulling, thus increasing deployment rates…

Overcoming the barriers to interconnected mini-grid development requires national governments to clarify licensing procedures and tariff regulations and ultimately establish unambiguous tariff levels for the various interconnection options, a set of tasks that can be facilitated by the International Renewable Energy Agency….

Excerpts from Daniel Puig et al., An Action Agenda for Africa’s Electricity Sector, Science, Aug. 6, 2021

Imagining Failure: Nuclear Waste on the Beach, California

But for all the good vibes and stellar sunsets of  San Onofre state beach in California, beneath the surface hides a potential threat: 3.6m lb of nuclear waste from a group of nuclear reactors shut down nearly a decade ago. Decades of political gridlock have left it indefinitely stranded, susceptible to threats including corrosion, earthquakes and sea level rise. The San Onofre reactors are among dozens across the United States phasing out, but experts say they best represent the uncertain future of nuclear energy.

“It’s a combination of failures, really,” said Gregory Jaczko, who chaired the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the top federal enforcer, between 2009 and 2012, of the situation at San Onofre. That waste is the byproduct of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (Songs), three nuclear reactors primarily owned by the utility Southern California Edison (SCE) that has shut down….

Since there is not central repository for the final disposition of nuclear wasted in the United States,  the California Coastal Commission approved in 2015 the construction of an installation at San Onofre to store it until 2035. In August 2020, workers concluded the multi-year burial process, loading the last of 73 canisters of waste into a concrete enclosure. San Onofre is not the only place where waste is left stranded. As more nuclear sites shut down, communities across the country are stuck with the waste left behind. Spent fuel is stored at 76 reactor sites in 34 states….

At San Onofre, the waste is buried about 100ft from the shoreline, along the I-5 highway, one of the nation’s busiest thoroughfares, and not far from a pair of faults that experts say could generate a 7.4 magnitude earthquake. Another potential problem is corrosion. In its 2015 approval, the Coastal Commission noted the site could have a serious impact on the environment in case of coastal flooding and erosion hazards beyond its design capacity, 

Concerns have also been raised about government oversight of the site. Just after San Onofre closed, SCE began seeking exemptions from the NRC’s operating rules for nuclear plants. The utility asked and received permission to loosen rules on-site, including those dealing with record-keeping, radiological emergency plans for reactors, emergency planning zones and on-site staffing.

San Onofre isn’t the only closed reactor to receive exemptions to its operating licence. The NRC’s regulations historically focused on operating reactors and assumed that, when a reactor shut down, the waste would be removed quickly.

It’s true that the risk of accidents decreases when a plant isn’t operating, said Dave Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists. But adapting regulations through exemptions greatly reduces public transparency, he argued. “Exemptions are wink-wink, nudge-nudge deals with the NRC,” he said. “In general, it’s not really a great practice,” former NRC chair Jaczko said about the exemptions. “If the NRC is regulating by exemption, it means that there’s something wrong with the rules … either the NRC believes the rules are not effective, and they’re not really useful, or the NRC is not holding the line where the NRC should be holding line,” he said…

It’s worth considering how things fail, though, argued Rod Ewing, nuclear security professor at Stanford University’s center for international security and cooperation, and author of a 2021 report about spent nuclear waste that focuses on San Onofre. “The problem with our safety analysis approach is we spend a lot of time proving things are safe. We don’t spend much time imagining how systems will fail,” he said. “And I think the latter is what’s most important.”

Excerpts from Kate Mishkin, ‘A combination of failures:’ why 3.6m pounds of nuclear waste is buried on a popular California beach, Guardian, Aug. 

To Know the Truth Even if it Harms You

Distributed Denial of Secrets, or DDoSecrets, an NGO, had been a thorn in the side of secretive governments, corrupt corporations, and powerful law firms since its founding in late 2018. In June 2020, in a release known as BlueLeaks, the group published 269 gigabytes of law enforcement data, which exposed police malfeasance and surveillance overreach across the United States.

DDoSecrets also published incriminating records from overseas tax shelters, from the social media site Gab, and from a Christian crowdfunding site often used by the far right. The group has affected autocrats as well, exposing the Russian government’s plans in Ukraine and mapping out the Myanmar junta’s business dealings. These revelations have spawned numerous news stories in the public interest, making DDoSecrets a valuable source for journalists, but also rendering it a target: In July 2020, German authorities seized one of the organization’s servers. August of 2020 brought ominous news of a Department of Homeland Security bulletin labeling DDoSecrets a “criminal hacker group.” ..

Avowedly nonpartisan, DDoSecrets nonetheless exhibits an ethos that seems to fuse anarchist politics, a hacker’s curiosity about forbidden knowledge, and a general sympathy for the oppressed. Its barbed Latin slogan, Veritatem cognoscere ruat caelum et pereat mundus, roughly translates to, “To know the truth, even if the heavens fall and the world perishes.” Call it a bolder, more transformative version of “information wants to be free.”

Emma Best…launched DDoSecrets in December 2018 with someone known only by the pseudonym “The Architect.” Together, they set out to distinguish their group from WikiLeaks, which they felt had morphed into a vehicle for Julian Assange’s ego…”Truth has an impact, regardless of the respectability politics some people choose to engage in when it comes to the alleged sources,” Best wrote after Swiss law enforcement, at the request of U.S. authorities, arrested Tillie Kottmann, a hacker who alerted journalists to security vulnerabilities in a vast commercial network of surveillance cameras. “The world can no longer be rid of hacktivists or leaktivists. Not as long as people are willing.”

Excerpts from Jacob Silverman, The New WikiLeaks, The New Republic, Aug. 18, 2021

The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy

Solar panel installations are surging in the U.S. and Europe as Western countries seek to cut their reliance on fossil fuels. But the West faces a conundrum…: Most of them are produced with energy from carbon-dioxide-belching, coal-burning plants in China.

Concerns are mounting in the U.S. and Europe that the solar industry’s reliance on Chinese coal will create a big increase in emissions in the coming years as manufacturers rapidly scale up production of solar panels to meet demand. That would make the solar industry one of the world’s most prolific polluters, analysts say, undermining some of the emissions reductions achieved from widespread adoption. For years, China’s low-cost, coal-fired electricity has given the country’s solar-panel manufacturers a competitive advantage, allowing them to dominate global markets.

Chinese factories supply more than three-quarters of the world’s polysilicon, an essential component in most solar panels, according to industry analyst Johannes Bernreuter…Producing a solar panel in China creates around twice as much carbon dioxide as making it in Europe, said Fengqi You, professor of energy systems engineering at Cornell University.

Some Western governments and corporations are attempting to shift the solar industry away from coal…These policies would also help rebuild the West’s solar industry, which has withered under competition from higher-polluting Chinese producers, Western executives say…China has pushed down the price of panels so sharply that solar power is now less expensive than electricity generated from fossil fuels in many markets around the world. Imports of the solar cells that make up the panels are also flooding into the U.S. and Europe. Those shipments are either coming directly from China or contain key components made in China. “If China didn’t have access to coal, then solar power wouldn’t be cheap now,” said Robbie Andrew, a senior researcher at the Center for International Climate Research in Oslo. “Is it OK that we’ve had this huge bulge of carbon emissions from China because it allowed them to develop all these technologies really cheaply? We might not know that for another 30 to 40 years.”

Excerpts from Matthew Dalton, Behind the Rise of U.S. Solar Power, a Mountain of Chinese Coal, July 31, 2021

The Necessity of the Evil: Breeding Monkeys to Experiment with their Brains

In 2014 a German animal-rights group called soko Tierschutz planted a caretaker in the laboratory of Nikos Logothetis, a neuroscientist working at the Max Planck Institute in Tübingen. The infiltrator secretly filmed around 100 hours of lab work over six months, some of which was later broadcast on German television. The footage showed monkeys with metal plugs grafted into their skulls—ports which researchers used to probe and study their brains. One vomits on camera, apparently as a result of damage done to blood vessels in its brain while electrodes were inserted.

The impact was immediate and lasting. Around 800 people massed outside Dr Logothetis’s lab, demanding an end to his work with monkeys. He was called a monster and a murderer. He and his family received death threats. He faced charges (which were dismissed) of breaking German animal-welfare laws. So in 2020 he announced that his laboratory would move to China. He is building a new research facility in Shanghai, working with Mu-ming Poo of the Institute of Neuroscience, one of China’s leading brain researchers, who was on the team responsible for first cloning a genetically modified primate in 2018. 

In East Asia, particularly China and Japan, the volume of research carried out on monkeys is growing. Most of this has been driven by creating and expanding domestic primate-research programmes. Leading institutions such as the Shanghai Institute of Neuroscience focus on breeding monkeys whose genomes have been modified in order to make their physiology more like humans’ and so more useful for studying human diseases.

The social nature of monkeys and their intelligence—which is why they are so useful for research—also help explain why such experiments are so troubling. Research which relies on them is simultaneously more valuable and more ethically fraught than research on other creatures. Neuroscientists in particular consider monkeys irreplaceable. The brain is so poorly understood that looking at its activity in living creatures is the only way to fathom how it works, says Dr Treue. Dissecting dead brains produces only limited information. Brains only really make sense when active. Few humans would volunteer to have electrodes implanted in their brains. The consent of any who did would be suspect….

The list of medical advances which rest on animal experimentation is long, but Dr Bennett points to one in particular that could not have happened without monkeys: prosthetic limbs which “talk” to the brain, known as neural prosthetics. The brains of non-human primates are sufficiently similar to ours to allow for a prosthetic developed on monkeys to be used by humans. They are still rare, but prototypes have restored the power to interact with the physical world to people who have lost the use of their own limbs.

China is becoming the global centre for the kind of neuroscience that uses monkeys. And the stakes are getting higher. Neurological disorders are the world’s second-leading cause of death after heart disease. Conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and dementia are becoming more burdensome as the world gets greyer. Meanwhile technology companies hope that an understanding of the brain can help them build cleverer software. Generals think advances in neuroscience can help them build better weapons.

The pandemic has bolstered China’s position. In February 2020 China’s government banned the export of all wild animals in an effort to tamp down the wildlife trade that is thought to be a vector for the zoonotic spillover of pathogens such as sars-cov-2, the virus that causes covid-19. Exceptions for research are subject to the government’s approval. Until recently the majority of monkeys used in America were imported from farms in China. But export controls have created shortages. China has decided that research primates are a strategic resource. Exports are unlikely to revert to their previous levels…America and Europe may find themselves outsourcing the creation of knowledge that relies on research methods they consider unethical. In future they may have to choose between relying on the fruits of that knowledge, such as treatments for neurological disorders, and rejecting them in principle….

Excerpt from Money Business: Attitudes towards experimenting on monkeys are diverging, Economist, July 24, 2021

The Trillion Dollar Mess: Taking Down the Oil Infrastructure

Some of the world’s largest oil companies have been ordered to pay part of a $7.2 billion tab to retire hundreds of aging wells in the Gulf of Mexico that they used to own, capping a case that legal experts say is a harbinger of future battles over cleanup costs.

A federal judge ruled last month that Fieldwood Energy a privately held company that currently controls the old wells and had sought bankruptcy protection, could pass on hundreds of millions of dollars in environmental liabilities to prior owners and insurers of the wells as part of its reorganization plan. Exxon Mobil,  BP, Hess , Royal Dutch Shell and insurance companies had objected to the plan. The dispute, litigated for months in federal bankruptcy court in Houston, centered over who should bear the enormous costs of capping and abandoning wells, primarily in the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico where an oil spill could wreak havoc. The companies could still appeal the ruling…

Jason Bordoff, founding director of Columbia University’s Center for Global Energy Policy said that the expenses to decommission oil-and-gas infrastructure world-wide will in the trillions of dollars. “Who bears the costs?” he said. “There will be people who want to pass the buck.”

BP and Shell have pledged to reduce their carbon emissions to zero by 2050. To accomplish that, those companies will have to sell off some oil-and-gas wells to get their related emissions off their books, say energy analysts. But such asset sales present huge risks for big oil companies because many of the buyers are smaller, privately held firms, like Fieldwood, which may not have the financial wherewithal to bear cleanup costs, Ms. Usoro said. This was Fieldwood’s second bankruptcy in two years.

These smaller companies buy the wells for pennies on the dollar and assume the cleanup expenses in the hope that they can reduce the assets’ cost structure and squeeze out the remaining barrels of oil profitably. “I’ve always questioned this business model,” said Ms. Usoro. “Are these guys able to take care of the end of life?”

Excerpts Christopher M. Matthews, Oil Companies Are Ordered to Help Cover $7.2 Billion Cleanup Bill in Gulf of Mexico, WSJ, July 6, 2021

From Natural Landmark to an Oil Spill Wasteland

Mohammad Abubakar, Minister of Environment  disclosed in July 2021 that Nigeria recorded 4,919 oil spills between 2015 to March 2021 and lost 4.5 trillion barrels of oil to theft in four years.

Mr Abubakar disclosed this at a Town Hall meeting in Abuja, organised by the Ministry of Information and Culture, on protecting oil and gas infrastructure. “The operational maintenance is 106, while sabotage is 3,628 and yet to be determined 70, giving the total number of oil spills on the environment to 235,206 barrels of oil. This is very colossal to the environment.

“Several statistics have emphasised Nigeria as the most notorious country in the world for oil spills, loosing roughly 400,000 barrels per day. “The second country is followed by Mexico that has reported only 5,000 to 10,000 barrel only per day, thus a difference of about 3, 900 per cent.

“Attack on oil facilities has become the innovation that replaced agitations in the Niger Delta region against perceived poor governance and neglect of the area.

Excerpts from Nigeria Records 4,919 Oil Spills in 6 Years, 4.5trn Barrels Stolen in 4 Years, AllAfrica.com, July 6, 2021

Yummy Plastics

“From Waste to Food: A Generator of Future Food” by Ting Lu and Stephen Techtmann, won the Merck 1 million prize.  It concerns an efficient, economical and versatile technology that converts wastes such as end-of-life plastics into edible foods. These foods contain all the required nutrition, are non-toxic, provide health benefits, and additionally allow for personalization needs. This technology promises to transform waste streams into nutritious food supplements, thus solving the two problems of increasing food scarcity and plastic waste simultaneously.

The core of the proposed technology is to harness synthetic microbial consortia – a combination of natural and rationally engineered microorganisms – in order to efficiently convert waste into food. The project will comprise four research goals: conversion from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) to protein powder (goal 1), augmentation of biosafety for food and for the environment (goal 2), introduction of nutritional and health-promoting contents (goal 3), and expansion of the technology to include additional plastics or other types of waste (goal 4). The proposed work will establish a transformative basis for food generation.

  • Excerpts from Future Insight Prize, Merck Press Release, July 13, 2021

Who’s Not Giving a Damn about Nuclear Fallout

On May 1st 1962, French officials in Algeria told Algerians to leave their homes in the southern city of Tamanrasset. It was just a precaution. France was about to detonate an atom bomb, known as Beryl, in the desert some 150km away. The blast would be contained underground. Two French ministers were there to witness the test. But things did not go as planned. The underground shaft at the blast site was not properly sealed. The mountain (Taourirt Tan Afella) above the site cracked and black smoke spread everywhere. The ministers (and everyone else nearby) ran as radioactive particles leaked into the air. Nevertheless, in the months and years after, locals would go to the area to recover scrap metal from the blast for use in their homes.

France carried out 17 nuclear tests in Algeria between 1960 and 1966. Many took place after Algeria’s independence from France in 1962, under an agreement between the two countries. There are no good data on the effects of the explosions on public health and the environment, but locals note that some people living near the test sites have suffered cancers and birth defects typically caused by radiation. The sites, say activists, are still contaminated.

Taourirt is a group dedicated to identifying the location of nuclear waste left by France. All that exists in the public domain is an inventory of the contaminated materials buried somewhere in the desert. (The known test sites are poorly secured by the Algerian government.) Others are pressing France to clean up the sites and compensate victims. There has been some progress in this direction, but not enough, say activists.

In 2010 the French parliament passed the Morin law, which is meant to compensate those with health problems resulting from exposure to the nuclear tests. (France carried out nearly 200 tests in French Polynesia, too.) But the law only pertains to certain illnesses and requires claimants to show they were living near the tests when they took place. This is difficult enough for Algerians who worked for the French armed forces: few had formal contracts. It is almost impossible for anyone else. Only a small fraction of the claims filed have come from Algeria.

Excerpts from Algeria and France: Lingering Fallout, Economist, June 26, 2021

How to Spy on Your Own Country for $1.25 per day

San Francisco-based Premise Data Corp. pays users, many of them in the developing world, to complete basic tasks for small payments. Typical assignments involve snapping photos, filling out surveys or doing other basic data collection or observational reporting such as counting ATMs or reporting on the price of consumer goods like food.

About half of the company’s clients are private businesses seeking commercial information, Premise says. That can involve assignments like gathering market information on the footprint of competitors, scouting locations and other basic, public observational tasks. Premise in recent years has also started working with the U.S. military and foreign governments, marketing the capability of its flexible, global, gig-based workforce to do basic reconnaissance and gauge public opinion.

Premise is one of a growing number of companies that straddle the divide between consumer services and government surveillance and rely on the proliferation of mobile phones as a way to turn billions of devices into sensors that gather open-source information useful to government security services around the world.

Premise launched in 2013,, As of 2019, the company’s marketing materials said it has 600,000 contributors operating in 43 countries, including global hot spots such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen. According to federal spending records, Premise has received at least $5 million since 2017 on military projects—including from contracts with the Air Force and the Army and as a subcontractor to other defense entities. In one pitch on its technology, prepared in 2019 for Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan, Premise proposed three potential uses that could be carried out in a way that is “responsive to commander’s information requirements”: gauge the effectiveness of U.S. information operations; scout and map out key social structures such as mosques, banks and internet cafes; and covertly monitor cell-tower and Wi-Fi signals in a 100-square-kilometer area. The presentation said tasks needed to be designed to “safeguard true intent”—meaning contributors wouldn’t necessarily be aware they were participating in a government operation…

 Another Premise document says the company can design “proxy activities” such as counting bus stops, electricity lines or ATMs to provide incentives for contributors to move around as background data is gathered. Data from Wi-Fi networks, cell towers and mobile devices can be valuable to the military for situational awareness, target tracking and other intelligence purposes. There is also tracking potential in having a distributed network of phones acting as sensors, and knowing the signal strength of nearby cell towers and Wi-Fi access points can be useful when trying to jam communications during military operations. Nearby wireless-network names can also help identify where a device is, even if the GPS is off, communications experts say.

Mr. Blackman said gathering open-source data of that nature doesn’t constitute intelligence work. “Such data is available to anyone who has a cellphone,” he said. “It is not unique or secret.” Premise submitted a document last July to the British government describing its capabilities, saying it can capture more than 100 types of metadata from its contributors’ phones and provide them to paying customers—including the phone’s location, type, battery level and installed apps. 

Users of the Premise app aren’t told which entity has contracted with the company for the information they are tasked with gathering. The company’s privacy policy discloses that some clients may be governments and that it may collect certain types of data from the phone, according to a spokesman…Currently the app assigns about five tasks a day to its users in Afghanistan, according to interviews with users there, including taking photos of ATMs, money-exchange shops, supermarkets and hospitals. One user in Afghanistan said he and others there are typically paid 20 Afghani per task, or about 25 cents—income for phone and internet services. A few months ago, some of the tasks on the site struck him as potentially concerning. He said the app posted several tasks of identifying and photographing Shiite mosques in a part of western Kabul populated largely by members of the ethnic Hazara Shiite minority. The neighborhood was attacked several times by Islamic State over the past five years…. Because of the nature and location of the tasks in a hot spot for terrorism, the user said he thought those tasks could involve spying and didn’t take them on.

Excerpt from Byron Tau, App Users Unwittingly Collect Intelligence, WSJ,  June 25, 2010

Green Con Artists and their Moneyed Followers

Green investing has grown so fast that there is a flood of money chasing a limited number of viable companies that produce renewable energy, electric cars and the like. Some money managers are stretching the definition of green in how they deploy investors’ funds. Now billions of dollars earmarked for sustainable investment are going to companies with questionable environmental credentials and, in some cases, huge business risks. They include a Chinese incinerator company, an animal-waste processor that recently settled a state lawsuit over its emissions and a self-driving-truck technology company.

One way to stretch the definition is to fund companies that supply products for the green economy, even if they harm the environment to do so. In 2020 an investment company professing a “strong commitment to sustainability” merged with the operator of an open-pit rare-earth mine in California at a $1.5 billion valuation. Although the mine has a history of environmental problems and has to bury low-level radioactive uranium waste, the company says it qualifies as green because rare earths are important for electric cars and because it doesn’t do as much harm as overseas rivals operating under looser regulations…

When it comes to green companies, “there just isn’t enough” to absorb investor demand…In response, MSCI has looked at other ways to rank companies for environmentally minded investors, for example ranking “the greenest within a dirty industry”….

Of all the industries seeking green money, deep-sea mining may be facing the harshest environmental headwinds. Biologists, oceanographers and the famous environmentalist David Attenborough have been calling for a yearslong halt of all deep-sea mining projects. A World Bank report warned of the risk of “irreversible damage to the environment and harm to the public” from seabed mining and urged caution. More than 300 deep-sea scientists released a statement today calling for a ban on all seabed mining until at least 2030. In late March 2021, Google, battery maker Samsung SDI Co., BMW AG and heavy truck maker Volvo Group announced that they wouldn’t buy metals from deep-sea mining.

[However the The Metals Company (TMC) claims that deep seabed mining is green].

Excerpts from Justin Scheck et al, Environmental Investing Frenzy Stretches Meaning of ‘Green’, WSJ, June 24, 2021

Junk: the Engine of Green Growth

“Plastic waste is not just a global crisis that threatens economic recovery, climate, and nature. It is also an investment opportunity that can flip it from a scourge into an engine for economic development,” said Rob Kaplan, who founded Circulate Capital in 2017. Initially the firm sought to back companies in India and Southeast Asia, such as recycling or waste-sorting companies, that help reduce the amount of plastic waste that winds up in the ocean.

In 2019 it raised a $106 million debt and project finance fund, Circulate Capital Ocean Fund, backed by a handful of large multinational corporations that include Coca-Cola, Danone,  Procter & Gamble,  and Unilever…Circulate is one of a small but growing number of firms investing in companies that contribute to what they call the circular economy, a business model that seeks to eliminate waste that organizations produce, continuously reuse products and materials and regenerate natural systems.

An estimated 30 private-market funds, including private-equity, venture and debt strategies focused on the circular economy in the first half of 2020, up from just three in 2016….A number of large multinational corporations are funding these firms’ efforts as part of a broader push to reduce both the overall waste their own companies produce and the amount of virgin materials they use.

Unilever, which has backed funds managed by Circulate and New York-based Closed Loop Partners, aims to cut in half the amount of virgin plastic it uses by 2025 and plans to collect and process more plastic packaging than it sells. Coca-Cola, also a backer of Circulate’s Ocean fund, aims to make all of its global packaging recyclable by 2025 and to use at least 50% of recycled packaging material by 2030, among other goals.

Excerpt from Laura Kreutzer, Growth Firms See Plastic Waste as an Investment Opportunity, WSJ, June 23, 2021
 

Who Benefits from Climate Change? Nuclear Ice-Breakers

Melting ice in the Arctic Ocean is bringing a centuries-old dream closer to reality for Russia: a shipping passage through its northern waters that could put it at the center of a new global trade shipping route…A host of issues remain, such as icebreaker escort tariffs, transit costs and navigational unpredictability in the Arctic Circle. But an opening of the passage (the Northern Sea Route-NSR) would put Russia at the center of a new global shipping route for energy supplies and cargo. Moscow says it has the right to restrict passage and set prices for transit, and the route would also give it an important bargaining chip in its ties with China—one of the biggest beneficiaries of the 3,500-mile long passage…

So far this year, traffic regulated by the Russian government is up 11% from the record 1,014 trips made in 2020….The traffic in 2020 was up more than 25% from 2019 with 33 million tons of cargo, oil and liquefied natural gas, and Moscow expects that number to grow. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he wants cargo to double to 80 million tons by 2024.The State Atomic Energy Corporation, or Rosatom, which manages a fleet of nuclear icebreakers that can cut through ice up to 10-feet thick, is drafting plans to station personnel along the route, boost port infrastructure along the shipping lane to allow for loading, and provide navigational and medical aid for ships. Rosatom has already stationed one floating nuclear-power plant on the route, to help with onshore construction…

 “There is a certain interest in the NSR from the Chinese Navy for strategic mobility to move troops between Pacific to Atlantic theaters,” said Vasily Kashin, an expert on Russia-China relations at the Moscow-based Higher School of Economics. “And they do have this interest in establishing their presence on the Atlantic.”

Russia has already boosted its military presence in the Arctic and along the Northern Sea Route, but the U.S. says Moscow’s legal jurisdiction doesn’t extend to the waters where the Kremlin is working to develop the passage….Russian authorities are still determining the transparent tariff duties, both for transit and for icebreaker escorts along the passage, that are key to attracting both investment and cargo.  Traffic on the route, however, is already guaranteed by Russia’s increasing production of Arctic oil and gas. The majority of vessels carry LNG from the port of Sabetta, where gas from Russian energy giant Novatek’s Yamal project is loaded for consumers in Europe or Asia. Crude from Rosneft’s planned Vostok oil field project will also be sent along the route when it comes onstream….

Excerpts from Thomas Grove, Melt Boosts Russia Shipping Arctic,  WSJ, June 24, 2021

Save Time and Money but Destroy Soil and Oceans

The images of swaths of garbage floating on the oceans’ surface have become a rallying call to address plastic pollution, but there is more to this challenge than meets the eye. While plastics and microplastics – items smaller than 5 mm – accumulate and impact marine environments, much of the problem is rooted in land contamination. Land-based plastic pollution, which often feeds into the oceans, is estimated to be at least four times higher than what is in the oceans, according to a study published in Global Change Biology. 

“Soil is the main source of microplastics reaching oceans through soil erosion and surface runoff,”  Plastics settle in soil through disposal in landfills, as well as through the use of plastic-sheets in agriculture or application of microplastic contaminated compost. “Direct disposal of plastics to ocean is relatively less pronounced compared to the transfer of microplastics from land. Microplastics, lighter than soil particles, such as sand, silt and clay, are easily lost to waterways,”…

“We contribute to plastic pollution through indiscriminate disposal of plastics in landfills and use of microbeads in cosmetics and microfibers in textiles. There are efforts to produce biodegradable plastics, which may provide some solution to plastic pollution, but bioplastic may not be the silver bullet to manage plastic pollution.” Commonly used biodegradable bioplastics “retain their mechanical integrity under natural conditions, potentially causing physical harm if they are ingested by marine or terrestrial animals.” “The fate of biodegradable bioplastics in natural and engineered environments could be potentially problematic. Methane is a product of biodegradation in anaerobic environments in landfills.” These bioplastics, furthermore, require high temperatures, controlled aeration and humidity to degrade completely.

Due to their small size, microplastics, especially nanoplastics resulting from the degradation of microplastic, can enter organisms’ internal organs, where they could potentially transfer contaminants attached to them. These can include persistent organic pollutants, like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), as well as trace metals like mercury and lead. The plastics and pollutants that accumulate on or in them enter the food chain and can eventually be transferred to humans, causing growing food safety concerns.

The Joint FAO/IAEA Centre’s laboratories are equipped to research the presence of microplastics in food. “Techniques such as energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy and infrared and Raman spectroscopy can be applied to screen for plastics in foods, enabling risk assessment and management,” said Andrew Cannavan, Head of the Joint Centre’s Food and Environmental Protection Section. 

Excerpt from Joanne Liou Out of Sight but not out of Mind: IAEA and FAO Launch R&D to Identify Sources, Impacts of Microplastic Pollution in Soil, IAEA Press Release, July 2, 2021

The Starving Manatees of Florida

Florida manatees are dying at a record pace, prompting a federal investigation and calls to relist the aquatic mammals as endangered. So far this year, 800 manatees have died in Florida, more than double the average for the same period over the past five years, according to state data. Their estimated population numbered 5,733 in 2019, the most recent year in which wildlife officials conducted a count….

At the heart of the problem is deteriorating water quality that has depleted the seagrasses that manatees eat, researchers say. It highlights a broader threat to other marine species, they say, and to Florida’s economy, which relies heavily on visitors drawn to the state’s coastline. Manatees, which typically measure about 10 feet in length and weigh more than 1,000 pounds, have faced numerous perils in recent years, including collisions with watercraft and exposure to red tide, a harmful algal bloom. Now, researchers say, they are experiencing starvation.

Excerpt from Arian Campo-Flores, Manatees Are Dying in Florida, and the U.S. Wants to Know Why, WSJ, June 23, 2021

How to Remove Carbon from 30 Million Cars Every Single Year

Gabon is the first country in Africa to receive results-based payments for reduced emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. The first payment is part of the breakthrough agreement between Gabon and the multi-donor UN-hosted Central African Forest Initiative’s (CAFI) in 2019 for a total of $150 million over ten years.

At a high-level event organised on Tuesday, Sveinung Rotevatn, Norway’s Minister of Climate and Environment said on behalf of CAFI: “This is the first time an African country has been rewarded for reducing forest-related emissions at the national level.  It is extremely important that Gabon has taken this first step. The country has demonstrated that with strong vision, dedication and drive, emissions reductions can be achieved in the Congo Basin forest.” Gabon is leading the way in maintaining its status of High Forest Cover Low Deforestation (HFLD) country. ..

Gabon has preserved much of its pristine rainforest since the early 2000s in creating 13 national parks, one of which is listed UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its forests absorb a total of 140 million tons of CO2 every year, the equivalent of removing 30 million cars from the road globally.

Gabon has also made significant advances in sustainable management of its timber resources outside the parks, with an ambition to ensure that all forest concessions are FSC-certified. Forest spans over 88% of its territory, and deforestation rates have been consistently low (less than 0.08%) since 1990. Gabon’s forests house pristine wildlife and megafauna including 60% of the remaining forest elephants, sometimes called the “architects” or “gardeners” of the forest for their roles in maintaining healthy ecosystems and recently listed as critically endangered.

Excerpt from Gabon receives first payment for reducing CO2 emissions under historic CAFI agreement, Central African Forest Initiative, June 22, 2021

Do It 100 Trillion Times Faster! Race Quantum Supremacy

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) initiative is looking in a full picture of how quantum computing will shape the next 30 years of computing.  In April 2021, the agency embarked on a new initiative to support the development of quantum computers. Called the Quantum Benchmarking program, the effort aims to establish key quantum-computing metrics and then make those metrics testable.

“It’s really about developing quantum computing yardsticks that can accurately measure what’s important to focus on in the race toward large, fault-tolerant quantum computers,” Joe Altepeter, program manager in DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office, said in an agency announcement. Historically, the U.S. has invested heavily in quantum science research, but it has not had a full national strategy to coordinate those efforts. The December 2018 National Quantum Initiative Act kickstarted the federal approach to accelerate quantum research and development for an initial five-year period.

Developing metrics would also help quantify and understand how transformative large quantum computers could be. ..The 2018 legislation also established various research centers and partnerships for quantum computing, such as the Quantum Economic Development Consortium comprising government, private and public entities. Under these partnerships, researchers have explored how quantum computing interacts with other technologies, like artificial intelligence, to impact health care. “One of the applications we’re excited about is enabling drug discovery. We want to investigate if we can help the pharmaceuticals industry,” said Altepeter…

“[Quantum computers] could be transformative and the most important technology we’ve ever seen, or they can be totally useless and these gigantic paperweights that are sitting in labs across the country. That window of potential surprise is the key. That’s the kind of surprise that DARPA cannot allow to exist,” said Altepeter. “It’s our job to make sure that we eliminate those kinds of surprises — hence why we wanted to do this program.”

Excerpts from Sarah Sybert, DARPA Aims for Quantum-Computing Benchmarks in New Program, https://governmentciomedia.com/, June 21, 2021

A team of Chinese scientists has developed the most powerful quantum computer in the world, capable of performing at least one task 100 trillion times faster than the world’s fastest supercomputers…In 2019, Google said it had built the first machine to achieve “quantum supremacy,” the first to outperform the world’s best supercomputers at quantum calculation. In December 2020, a Chinese team, based at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, reported their quantum computer, named Jiuzhang, is 10 billion times faster than Google’s. Assuming both claims hold up, Jiuzhang would be the second quantum computer to achieve quantum supremacy anywhere in the world.