Category Archives: property rights

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

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

The Reckless Gambles that Changed the World: darpa

Using messenger RNA to make vaccines was an unproven idea. But if it worked, the technique would revolutionize medicine, not least by providing protection against infectious diseases and biological weapons. So in 2013 America’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) gambled. It awarded a small, new firm called Moderna $25m to develop the idea. Eight years, and more than 175m doses later, Moderna’s covid-19 vaccine sits alongside weather satellites, GPS, drones, stealth technology, voice interfaces, the personal computer and the internet on the list of innovations for which DARPA can claim at least partial credit.

It is the agency that shaped the modern world, and this success has spurred imitators. In America there are ARPAS for homeland security, intelligence and energy, as well as the original defense one…Germany has recently established two such agencies: one civilian (the Federal Agency for Disruptive Innovation, or SPRIN-d) and another military (the Cybersecurity Innovation Agency). Japan’s interpretation is called Moonshot R&D. 

As governments across the rich world begin, after a four-decade lull, to spend more on research and development, the idea of an agency to invent the future (and, in so doing, generate vast industries) is alluring and, the success of DARPA suggests, no mere fantasy. In many countries there is displeasure with the web of bureaucracy that entangles funding systems, and hope that the DARPA model can provide a way of getting around it. But as some have discovered, and others soon will, copying DARPA requires more than just copying the name. It also needs commitment to the principles which made the original agency so successful—principles that are often uncomfortable for politicians.

On paper, the approach is straightforward. Take enormous, reckless gambles on things so beneficial that only a handful need work to make the whole venture a success. As Arun Majumdar, founding director of ARPA-e, America’s energy agency, puts it: “If every project is succeeding, you’re not trying hard enough.” Current (unclassified) DAROA projects include mimicking insects’ nervous systems in order to reduce the computation required for artificial intelligence and working out how to protect soldiers from the enemy’s use of genome-editing technologies.

The result is a mirror image of normal R&D agencies. Whereas most focus on basic research, DARPA builds things. Whereas most use peer review and carefully selected measurements of progress, DARPA strips bureaucracy to the bones (the conversation in 1965 which led the agency to give out $1m for the first cross-country computer network, a forerunner to the internet, took just 15 minutes). All work is contracted out. DARPA has a boss, a small number of office directors and fewer than 100 program managers, hired on fixed short-term contracts, who act in a manner akin to venture capitalists, albeit with the aim of generating specific outcomes rather than private returns.

Excerpt from Inventing the future: A growing number of governments hope to clone America’s DARPA, Economist, June 5, 2021

Tesla as Catfish: When China Carps-Tech CEOs Fall in Line

Many countries are wrestling with how to regulate digital records. Some economies, including in Europe, emphasize the need for data privacy, while others, such as China and Russia, put greater focus on government control. The U.S. currently doesn’t have a single federal-level law on data protection or security; instead, the Federal Trade Commission is broadly empowered to protect consumers from unfair or deceptive data practices.

Behind China’s moves is a growing sense among leaders that data accumulated by the private sector should in essence be considered a national asset, which can be tapped or restricted according to the state’s needs, according to the people involved in policy-making. Those needs include managing financial risks, tracking virus outbreaks, supporting state economic priorities or conducting surveillance of criminals and political opponents. Officials also worry companies could share data with foreign business partners, undermining national security.


Beijing’s latest economic blueprint for the next five years, released in March 2021, emphasized the need to strengthen government sway over private firms’ data—the first time a five-year plan has done so. A key element of Beijing’s push is a pair of laws, one passed in June 2021, the Data Security Law,  and the other a proposal updated by China’s legislature in Apr0il 2021. Together, they will subject almost all data-related activities to government oversight, including their collection, storage, use and transmission. The legislation builds on the 2017 Cybersecurity Law that started tightening control of data flows.

The law will “clearly implement a more stringent management system for data related to national security, the lifeline of the national economy, people’s livelihood and major public interests,” said a spokesman for the National People’s Congress, the legislature. The proposed Personal Information Protection Law, modeled on the European Union’s data-protection regulation, seeks to limit the types of data that private-sector firms can collect. Unlike the EU rules, the Chinese version lacks restrictions on government entities when it comes to gathering information on people’s call logs, contact lists, location and other data.

In late May 2021, citing concerns over user privacy, the Cyberspace Administration of China singled out 105 apps—including ByteDance’s video-sharing service Douyin and Microsoft Corp.’s Bing search engine and LinkedIn service—for excessively collecting and illegally accessing users’ personal information. The government gave the companies named 15 days to fix the problems or face legal consequences….

Beijing’s pressure on foreign firms to fall in line picked up with the 2017 Cybersecurity Law, which included a provision calling for companies to store their data on Chinese soil. That requirement, at least initially, was largely limited to companies deemed “critical infrastructure providers,” a loosely defined category that has included foreign banks and tech firms….Since 2021, Chinese regulators have formally made the data-localization requirement a prerequisite for foreign financial institutions trying to get a foothold in China. Citigroup Inc. and BlackRock Inc. are among the U.S. firms that have so far agreed to the rule and won licenses to start wholly-owned businesses in China…

Senior officials have publicly likened Tesla to a “catfish” rather than a “shark,” saying the company could uplift the auto sector the way working with Apple and Motorola Mobility LLC helped elevate China’s smartphone and telecommunications industries. To ensure Tesla doesn’t become a security risk, China’s Cyberspace Administration recently issued a draft rule that would forbid electric-car makers from transferring outside China any information collected from users on China’s roads and highways. It also restricted the use of Tesla cars by military personnel and staff of some state-owned companies amid concerns that the vehicles’ cameras could send information about government facilities to the U.S. In late May 2021, Tesla confirmed it had set up a data center in China and would domestically store data from cars it sold in the country. It said it joined other Chinese companies, including Alibaba and Baidu Inc., in the discussion of the draft rules arranged by the CyberSecurity Association of China, which reports to the Cyberspace Administration…

Increasingly, China’s president, Mr. Xi, leaned toward voices advocating greater digital control. He now labels big data as another essential element of China’s economy, on par with land, labor and capital.  “From the point of view of the state, anti-data monopoly must be strengthened,” said Li Lihui, a former president of state-owned Bank of China Ltd. and now a member of China’s legislature. He said he expects China to establish a “centralized and unified public database” to underpin its digital economy.

Excerpts from China’s New Power Play: More Control of Tech Companies’ Troves of Data, WSJ, June 12, 2021

Begging for a Vaccine: the other COVID crisis

On April 16, 2021  Adar Poonawalla, head of the world’s biggest vaccine-maker, the Serum Institute of India (SII), begged President Joe Biden, in a tweet, to ‘lift the embargo of raw material exports out of the us.’… because it would affect the manufacturing of vaccines: AstraZeneca’s, of which SII makes 100m doses a month, and Novavax’s, of which it expects to make 60m-70m doses a month.

That was shortly after the Biden administration announced, on February 5, 2021, plans to use the Defense Production Act (DPA)—a law dating from the 1950s that grants the president broad industrial-mobilization powers—to bolster US vaccine-making. This legislation…has helped American pharmaceutical companies to secure a variety of special materials and equipment, including plastic tubing, raw goods, filters and even paper, that are needed for vaccine production. But firms which export such products point out that the DPA  hinders their ability to sell them abroad. They must seek permission before exporting these goods. That requires time and paperwork. And if the government decides it needs the goods in question to remain in the country, the firms concerned may be barred from exporting them at all… 

To be used in vaccine manufacturing, products have to be approved by regulators. So finding substitutes quickly can be impossible. SII is not alone in its concern. On March 24, 2021  Micheal Martin, Ireland’s prime minister, warned that export bans (and not just from America) would harm global vaccine production. He noted that the Pfizer vaccine involves 280 components from 86 suppliers in 19 countries. Indeed, American export controls particularly harm European vaccine companies, which need special bags from America in which to make their products. At a vaccine supply-chain meeting in March, one such firm complained of 66-week delivery times for the supply of these bags.

Excerpts from A Vaxxing Problem: Covid 19 and the Defense Production Act, Economist, Apr. 24, 2021

The Gung-Ho Way to Seize Space Real Estate

Elon Musk’s internet satellite venture has spawned an unlikely alliance of competitors, regulators and experts who say the billionaire is building a near-monopoly that is threatening space safety and the environment. The Starlink project, owned by Mr. Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. or SpaceX, is authorized to send some 12,000 satellites into orbit to beam superfast internet to every corner of the Earth. It has sought permission for another 30,000.

Now, rival companies such as Viasat,  OneWeb, Hughes Network Systems and Boeing Co. are challenging Starlink’s space race in front of regulators in the U.S. and Europe. Some complain that Mr. Musk’s satellites are blocking their own devices’ signals and have physically endangered their fleets. Mr. Musk’s endeavor is still in beta testing but it has already disrupted the industry, and even spurred the European Union to develop a rival space-based internet project to be unveiled by the end of the year.

The critics’ main argument is that Mr. Musk’s launch-first, upgrade-later principle, which made his Tesla Inc. TSLA electric car company a pioneer, gives priority to speed over quality, filling Earth’s already crowded orbit with satellites that may need fixing after they launch.

“SpaceX has a gung-ho approach to space,” said Chris McLaughlin, government affairs chief for rival OneWeb. “Every one of our satellites is like a Ford Focus—it does the same thing, it gets tested, it works—while Starlink satellites are like Teslas: They launch them and then they have to upgrade and fix them, or even replace them altogether,” Mr. McLaughlin said. Around 5% of the first batch of Starlink satellites failed, SpaceX said in 2019…. 

Orbital space is finite, and the current lack of universal regulation means companies can place satellites on a first-come, first-served basis. And Mr. Musk is on track to stake a claim for most of the free orbital real estate, largely because, unlike competitors, he owns his own rockets.

Excerpts from Bojan Pancevski, Elon Musk’s Satellite Internet Project Is Too Risky, Rivals Say, April 19, 2021

Wild West: Mercury Pollution in the Amazon Rainforest

Munduruku Indigenous people in the Tapajós basin – an epicenter of illegal gold mining in the Amazon rainforest – in southwestern Pará state have reported increasing encroachments upon their lands by armed “wildcat” miners known as “garimpeiros” since March 14, 2021. The Federal Prosecutor’s Office has warned of a potential for violence between local residents and the miners and urged the deployment of the federal police and other authorities to remove the trespassers. But the government has yet to act. The tension has escalated in recent weeks after a group of miners brought equipment to the area.

Illegal mining causes significant deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon and has been linked to dangerous levels of mercury poisoning, from mercury widely used to process the gold, in several Munduruku communities along the Tapajós basin. Indigenous people also fear that miners could spread the Covid-19 virus in their communities.

In a public statement on March 16, 2021 the Federal Prosecutor’s Office reported that a helicopter appeared to have escorted the miners and their equipment, suggesting the invasion is “an orchestrated action” by an organized crime group. The office also reported that the miners may be coordinating the invasion with a “small group” of Indigenous people who support the mining. Members of Munduruku communities who oppose the mining and have reported the invasions to the authorities say they have faced threats and intimidation. On March 19, 2021 armed men reportedly prevented a group of Munduruku Indigenous people from disembarking from their boats in an area within their territory. On March 25, 2021 in the Jacareacanga municipality, miners and their supporters forced their way into a building that houses the Wakoborun Women’s Association and other community organizations that have opposed the mining. The attackers destroyed furniture and equipment and set fire to documents, Indigenous leaders reported…

President Bolsonaro has signaled his aversion to protecting Indigenous lands. As a candidate, he vowed not to designate “one more centimeter” of land as Indigenous territory. His administration has halted the demarcation of Indigenous territories – there are 237 pending requests – leaving Indigenous communities even more vulnerable to encroachments, deforestation, and violence. The Munduruku territory is already demarcated. In 2020, Bolsonaro introduced a draft bill in Congress to allow mining and other commercial activities in Indigenous territories. The bill is pending in Congress and is listed as one of Bolsonaro’s priorities.

Excerpt from Brazil: Remove Miners from Indigenous Amazon Territory, Human Rights Watch, Apr. 12, 2021

The Fukushima Nuclear Meltdown: Ten Years — and Counting

A resolution to the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant remains a distant goal a decade after three of its reactors melted down. The most challenging part of the cleanup—removing molten nuclear fuel from each reactor—has yet to begin because of high radiation inside the reactor buildings, putting the targeted decommissioning of the plant by 2051 into doubt.

More than 80% of the Japanese public doesn’t feel significant progress is being made and is concerned about further accidents because of recent events. On Feb. 13, 2021 a large earthquake centered near Fukushima, an aftershock of the one 10 years ago, caused water to slosh out of a tank containing spent fuel rods, which must be kept submerged to avoid overheating. A week later, a fish caught off the coast of Fukushima was found to contain 10 times the allowed level of radioactive cesium…This incident shows how risks from the plant continue to weigh on those who live and work nearby. 

“We are still struggling with harmful rumors from the nuclear plant accident,” said Tadaaki Sawada, a spokesman for the federation of Fukushima fishery cooperatives. “How many more years will it continue?”…By several measures, the worst nuclear disaster since the Chernobyl accident in 1986 has been contained. Only around 2% of Fukushima prefecture, or state, is still a no-go area, down from 12% immediately after the disaster. An extensive decontamination process removed topsoil from areas around the plant. Still, thousands of people remain forced out of towns closest to the plant.

In 2020, plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co., known as Tepco, and the government were close to a decision to start releasing into the sea over a million cubic meters of water from the plant, but plans were suspended amid opposition from local fishermen and concerns raised by neighboring countries. Contaminated rain and groundwater is stored in large tanks that dominate one side of the plant site. Once treated to remove most radioactive elements, the water still contains tritium, a form of hydrogen that emits a weak form of radiation. Tritium is regularly released into the sea and air from nuclear plants around the world after dilution.

Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency visited the Fukushima plant in 2020 and said disposal of the treated water into the sea would be in line with international practice. “A decision on the disposition path should be taken urgently” to keep the overall decommissioning on track, the IAEA said.

The most challenging part of the cleanup—removing molten nuclear fuel from each reactor—has yet to begin…Tepco has yet to get a clear picture of the location of molten fuel in the reactors because the levels of radiation are damaging even to robots…Gov. Uchibori said that gaining an accurate grasp of the molten-fuel situation was critical to making headway. “If you look at the entire process, right now we are still around the starting point of decommissioning,” he said.

Excerpts from Alastair Gale Fukushima Nuclear Cleanup Is Just Beginning a Decade After Disaster, 

Beyond Deforestation–Toxic Waste Pollution at the Amazon Rainforest

Maria do Socorro explains in graphic detail the spate of ailments affecting newborns in her remote community in the Amazon: her grandson died after being born with his intestines outside his body, while others were missing organs or had undeveloped bones.  For the 56-year-old community leader, there is little doubt about the cause of these illnesses. She said the rainforest town had for years suffered from toxic waste pollution from the local operations of Norwegian aluminum producer Norsk Hydro.

Long a simmering environmental scandal in Brazil, the allegations were brought on to the international stage in February 2021 when Socorro’s community sued the Norwegian giant in a Dutch court, seeking damages for claims that “the incorrect disposal of toxic waste” from operations in the area had caused a variety of health ailments, polluted the rainforest and destroyed economic opportunities.

“If business can be global, why can’t justice? These companies have businesses everywhere, but then when they do something wrong they want to smother the possibility of people getting compensation,” said Pedro Martins, partner at law firm PGMBM, which is representing 40,000 alleged victims bringing the suit against Norsk Hydro…

Through local entities, Norsk Hydro runs three facilities — a bauxite mine, a refinery and a smelter — in Pará, a vast Amazonian state that is a flashpoint for illegal deforestation, gold mining and land-grabbing.  The company…denied that in 2018 pollutants from its facilities spilled over during heavy rains and polluted nearby rivers and earth….

Locals say bauxite, lead and aluminium pollution have turned the region’s rivers red. A study from the Evandro Chagas Institute, a Brazilian public health body, found in 2018 that the region’s waters were so polluted with industrial waste from the Norsk Hydro facilities that they “cannot be used for recreation, fishing, or human consumption”.

“I invite these Norwegians to come and bathe in our waters. I challenge them. They have good water there in Norway. Our wealth just goes there,” said Socorro, who heads Cainquiama, a group representing mainly indigenous people and quilombolas — the descendants of runaway slaves. Nearly all of the claimants in the suit have complained about chronic pain, hair loss and skin conditions. The suit also contains claims in relation to birth defects, such as those that have affected Socorro’s grandson, who was born with gastroschisis — a hole in the abdominal wall.

The case is a sensitive one for Norwegian investors and the government, which owns a 34 per cent stake in Norsk Hydro. Oslo has long attempted to hold Brasília to account for the environmental destruction of the Amazon, even publishing its own data on deforestation in the world’s largest rainforest.

Excerpts from Bryan Harris, Norsk Hydro blamed for birth defects in Amazon forest pollution case, FT, Feb. 27, 2021

Gorillas, Murders and Making $1.50 per day-Congo Rainforest

Protecting the forests of Virunga National Park in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo – home to endangered mountain gorillas – could be described as one of the toughest jobs on the planet. In the past 12 months, more than 20 of the park’s staff have been murdered – and last week rebels were accused of killing the Italian ambassador to DR Congo, his security guard and driver in an attack within the park. “The level of sacrifice that’s involved in keeping this work going will always be the hardest thing to deal with,” says Emmanuel de Merode, who is in charge of more than 800 rangers at Virunga, Africa’s oldest and largest national park.


The Virunga park spans 7,800 sq km (3,000 sq miles) and is home to an astonishingly diverse landscape – from active volcanoes and vast lakes to rainforest and mountains.
The park was set up nearly 100 years ago to protect mountain gorillas, of which there are only 1,000 left in the world. It’s a national park which is part of the Congolese state which has been affected by civil war for the most of its recent history.

In  April 2020, 13 rangers were murdered in what park officials described as a “ferociously violent and sustained” attack by an armed group In January 2021, six rangers, patrolling the park’s boundary on foot, were killed in an ambush by militias. All of those who died were aged between 25 and 30.  It’s a national park which is part of the Congolese state which has been affected by civil war…. 

It’s estimated that a dozen or so armed militia groups survive off the park’s resources – poaching or chopping down wood to sell for fuel. DR Congo’s natural resources have been fought over for decades. The country – which is the size of mainland western Europe – has more mineral wealth, with diamonds, oil, cobalt and copper, than anywhere else on the planet. These are some of the elements essential to modern technology, making up key components in electric cars and smartphones.
Virunga is no different. It’s rich in resources underground as well as in nature and wildlife. But the two million people living in the region of the park mainly live on under $1.50 (£1.08) a day. This tussle for survival is not lost on Mr De Merode who sees protecting the park as essentially a social justice issue.

“It’s not a simple problem of protecting gorillas and elephants; it is overcoming an economic problem at the heart of one of the most horrific civil wars in history,” says Merode. 

Excerpt from Vivienne Nunis and Sarah Treanor, DR Congo’s Virunga National Park: The deadly job of protecting gorillas, BBC, Mar. 4, 2021

Natural Capital and Human Well-Being

What is the contribution of nature to the economy?… The breathable air, drinkable water and tolerable temperatures that allow humans to do everything they do, and the complex ecosystems that maintain them, tend to be taken for granted. Professor Dasgupta’s review on the Economics of Biodiversity does not seek to play on the heartstrings with tales of starving polar bears. Rather, it makes the hard-headed case that services provided by nature are an indispensable input to economic activity. Some of these services are relatively easy to discern: fish stocks, say, in the open ocean. Others are far less visible: such as the complex ecosystems within soil that recycle nutrients, purify water and absorb atmospheric carbon. These are unfamiliar topics for economists, so the review seeks to provide a “grammar” through which they can be analysed.

The report features its own illustrative production function, which includes nature. The environment appears once as a source of flows of extractable resources (like fish or timber). But it also shows up more broadly as a stock of “natural” capital. The inclusion of natural capital enables an analysis of the sustainability of current rates of economic growth. As people produce GDP, they extract resources from nature and dump waste back into it. If this extraction and dumping exceeds nature’s capacity to repair itself, the stock of natural capital shrinks and with it the flow of valuable environmental services. Between 1992 and 2014, according to a report published by the UN, the value of produced capital (such as machines and buildings) roughly doubled and that of human capital (workers and their skills) rose by 13%, while the estimated value of natural capital declined by nearly 40%. The demands humans currently place on nature, in terms of resource extraction and the dumping of harmful waste, are roughly equivalent to the sustainable output of 1.6 Earths (of which, alas, there is only the one)…Indeed, Professor Dasgupta argues that economists should acknowledge that there are in fact limits to growth. As the efficiency with which we make use of Earth’s finite bounty is bounded (by the laws of physics), there is necessarily some maximum sustainable level of GDP…

Professor Dasgupta hints at this problem by appealing to the “sacredness” of nature, in addition to his mathematical models and analytical arguments.

Excerpts from How should economists think about biodiversity?, Economist, Feb. 6, 2021

At Gunpoint in Congo: Is Coltan Worse than Oil?

Tantalum, a metal used in smartphone and laptop batteries, is extracted from coltan ore. In 2019 40% of the world’s coltan was produced in the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to official data. More was sneaked into Rwanda and exported from there. Locals dig for the ore by hand in Congo’s eastern provinces, where more than 100 armed groups hide in the bush. Some mines are run by warlords who work with rogue members of the Congolese army to smuggle the coltan out.

When demand for electronics soared in the early 2000s, coltan went from being an obscure, semi-valuable ore to one of the world’s most sought-after minerals. Rebels fought over mines and hunted for new deposits. Soldiers forced locals to dig for it at gunpoint. Foreign money poured into Congo. Armed groups multiplied, eager for a share.

Then, in 2010, a clause in America’s Dodd-Frank Act forced American firms to audit their supply chains. The aim was to ensure they were not using minerals such as coltan, gold and tin that were funding Congo’s protracted war. For six months mines in eastern Congo were closed, as the authorities grappled with the new rules. Even when they reopened, big companies, such as Intel and Apple, shied away from Congo’s coltan, fearing a bad press.

The “Obama law”, as the Congolese nickname Dodd-Frank, did reduce cash flows to armed groups. But it also put thousands of innocent people out of work. A scheme to trace supply chains known as ITSCI run by the International Tin Association based in London and an American charity, Pact, helped bring tentative buyers back to Congo.  ITSCI staff turn up at mining sites to see if armed men are hanging about, pocketing profits. They check that no children are working in the pits. If a mine is considered safe and conflict-free, government agents at the sites put tags onto the sacks of minerals. However, some unscrupulous agents sell tags on the black market, to stick on coltan from other mines. “The agents are our brothers,” Martin says. It is hard to police such a violent, hilly region with so few roads. Mines are reached by foot or motorbike along winding, muddy paths.

For a long time those who preferred to export their coltan legally had to work with itsci, which held the only key to the international market. Miners groaned that itsci charged too much: roughly 5% of the value of tagged coltan. When another scheme called “Better Sourcing” emerged, Congo’s biggest coltan exporter, Société Minière de Bisunzu, signed up to it instead.

Excerpts from Smugglers’ paradise: Congo, Economist, Jan. 23, 2021

Who Will Rule the Arctic?


Rosatom joined the Arctic Economic Council*in February 2021. Rosatom is a Russian state-owned corporation supplying about 20% of the country’s electricity. The corporation mainly holds assets in nuclear power and machine engineering and construction. In 2018, the Russian government appointed Rosatom to manage the Northern Sea Route (NSR). The NSR grants direct access to the Arctic, a region of increasing importance for Russia due to its abundance of fossil fuels. Moreover, due to climate changes, the extraction of natural resources, oil and gas are easier than ever before.

Since Russia’s handover of NSR’s management, Rosatom’s emphasis on the use of nuclear power for shipping, infrastructure development and fossil fuel extraction is likely to become more prevalent in the Arctic region. Rosatom already operate the world’s first floating nuclear power plant in the Siberian port of Pevek and is the only company in the world operating a fleet of civilian nuclear-powered icebreakers…The company has numerous plans up its sleeves, among them to expand the fleet of heavy-duty nuclear icebreakers to a minimum of nine by 2035.

*Other members of the Arctic Economic Council.

Excerpt from Polina Leganger Bronder, Rosatom joins Arctic Economic Council, BarentsObserver, Feb. 8, 2021

How to Find the True Cost of Water

At current rates of consumption, the demand for water worldwide will be 40% greater than its supply by 2030, according to the UN. Portfolio managers are realizing that physical, reputational and regulatory water risk could hurt their investments, particularly in thirsty industries such as food, mining, textiles and utilities.

One worry is that shocks to supply could drown or dry out a company’s assets. In recent years Coca-Cola has been forced to close plants in India because of drought. In 2019 floods in America’s Midwest caused disruptions at the facilities of two food giants, Cargill and Tyson Foods. A survey by CDP, a non-profit firm, found that 783 big listed companies had faced a total of $40bn of water-related losses in 2018.

Another concern is that the price a company pays for water could rocket. The market price of water does not reflect the environmental and social costs of using it. Government subsidies also mean that companies often do not pay for its true cost. As aquifers are depleted, though, subsidies could become more costly and unpopular, forcing governments to retract them. S&P Global Trucost, a data provider, reckons that if Fortune 500 companies paid the true cost of water, based on estimates of scarcity, rather than current prices, their profit margins would shrink by a tenth. Margins for food, drink and tobacco firms would fall by three-quarters.

Disclosures of water risk are even patchier than those of greenhouse-gas emissions…Established names like Bloomberg and S&P Global are plugging the gap, as are startups. The result is that investors can approach management armed with data rather than questions. “We are getting rid of the black box that companies hide in.” 

Ceres, a non-profit firm, scores businesses on everything from direct water management to risks in the supply chain. Those seeking more detail can use visual tools, such as Bloomberg’s “maps” function, which plots a company’s facilities over a heat map based on water stress. (California is the same color as swathes of sub-Saharan Africa; far-eastern Russia looks a lot like western Europe.) Firms like Aquantix go further, and try to predict the financial cost of water risk.

The accuracy of such forecasts is not yet proven. For Andrew Mason of Aberdeen Standard Investments, though, they are still useful. They show companies that investors care about water risk and encourage them to share data. “This is where carbon was ten or 15 years ago,” he says.

Excerpt from An expanding pool: Investors start to pay attention to water risk, Economist, Jan. 9, 2021

The New Lepers: Oil in Ecuador and Arctic Drilling

Some of Europe’s largest banks are phasing out trading services for the export of oil from the Ecuadorean Amazon, a move that reflects the growing focus of global banks on climate change and their shift away from increasingly risky fossil fuels.

On January 25, 2021, Switzerland’s Credit Suisse Group AG and Holland’s ING said that they were excluding new transactions related to exports of Ecuador’s Amazonian oil from their trading activities, citing climate change and concerns for the Amazon rainforest and its Indigenous people. France’s BNP Paribas SA, the largest bank in the eurozone and one of the region’s trading powerhouses, said in December 2020 that it would immediately exclude from its trading activities the seaborne exports of oil from the Esmeraldas region in Ecuador under its latest environmental finance policies.

Ecuador isn’t one of the world’s top oil producers, but petroleum exports are a key contributor to the country’s economy. Petroecuador, the nation’s state-owned oil company, didn’t respond to requests for comment.  The banks’ flight from Amazonian crude follows last year’s crash in oil prices and growing fears of so-called stranded assets, which are fossil fuels that lose value due to the world’s transition to cleaner forms of energy…

Banks are also facing calls from environmentalists and Indigenous peoples to limit their involvement in fossil fuels. In Ecuador, a campaign by activists and Indigenous people spurred ING and Credit Suisse to reduce their exposure to the Amazonian oil trade. The nonprofits Stand.earth and Amazon Watch published a report in 2020 that called out banks—including ING, Credit Suisse and BNP Paribas—for their financing of Amazonian crude…

Banks and insurers are also cutting ties with Arctic oil drilling. This month, Axis Capital Holdings joined fellow insurers AXA and Swiss Re in pledging not to underwrite any new oil-and-gas drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.  The six biggest U.S. banks— Citigroup Inc., Bank of America Corp. , Goldman Sachs Group Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Co., Morgan Stanley and Wells Fargo & Co.—have also said they would end funding for new drilling and exploration projects in the Arctic.

Excerpts from Dieter Holger & Pietro Lombardi, European Banks Quit Ecuador’s Amazonian Oil Trade, WSJ, Jan. 25, 2021

Assigning Responsibility for Oil Leaks: Shell’s Deep Pockets

Royal Dutch Shell’s  Nigerian subsidiary has been ordered on January 29, 2021 by a Dutch court to pay compensation for oil spills in two villages in Nigeria…The case was first lodged in 2008 by four Nigerian farmers and Friends of the Earth Netherlands. They had accused Shell and its Nigerian subsidiary of polluting fields and fish ponds through pipe leaks in the villages of Oruma and Goi.

The Court of Appeal in the Hague, where Shell has its headquarters, also ordered the company to install equipment to safeguard against future pipeline leaks. The amount of compensation payable related to the leaks, which occurred between 2004 and 2007, is yet to be determined by the court.  The case establishes a duty of care for the parent company to play a role in the pollution abroad, in this case by having the duty to make sure there is a leak-detection system…

Shell argued that the leaks were caused by sabotage…

In recent years there have been several cases in U.K. courts related to whether claimants can take matters to a parent company’s jurisdiction. In 2019, the U.K. Supreme Court ruled that a case concerning pollution brought by a Zambian community against Vedanta, an Indian copper-mining company previously listed in the U.K., could be heard by English courts. “It established that a parent company can be liable for the actions of the subsidiary depending on the facts,” said Martyn Day, partner at law firm Leigh Day, which represented the Zambians.

The January 2021 case isn’t the first legal action Shell has faced related to pollution in Nigeria. In 2014, the company settled a case with over 15,000 Nigerians involved in the fishing industry who said they were affected by two oil spills, after claims were made to the U.K. High Court. Four months before the case was due to go to trial Shell, which has its primary stock-exchange listing in the U.K., agreed to pay 55 million British pounds, equivalent to $76 million…  

The January 2021  verdict tells oil majors that “when things go wrong they will be held to account and very likely held to account where their parent company is based,” said Mr. Day, adding that the ruling could spark more such actions.

Excerpts from Sarah McFarlane, Shell Ordered to Pay Compensation Over Nigerian Oil Spills, WSJ, Jan. 29, 2021

De-Junking the Space and Saving the Commons

The part of space nearest Earth, known technically as low-Earth orbit, is getting cluttered. Some of the objects up there are working satellites. Some are satellites that have stopped working. Some are stages of the rockets which put those satellites into orbit. And a lot are debris left over from explosions and collisions between larger objects.

The risk of such collisions is increasing, for two reasons. First, the number of satellites being launched is rising. Second, collisions themselves beget collisions. The fragments they create add to the number of orbiting objects. At the moment, more than 20,000 such objects are being tracked, but there may be as many as 1million bigger than 1cm across. In the long term, this accumulation of junk may lead to a chain reaction, known as Kessler syndrome, that would make some low-Earth orbits unusable. Even in the short term it puts lots of expensive hardware at risk. So plans are being laid to send up special craft to “deorbit” redundant satellites and rocket stages. Given the current situation, this is a good, if expensive, idea. But a better one for the future would be to build deorbiting into the life-cycles of satellites and rocket stages from the beginning.

There are several ways of doing this. One is a “launch tax”. But that would load costs onto the satellite industry…A second idea is a space-going “bottle deposit” scheme. Satellite owners would pay an agreed sum into an escrow account that was redeemable when they deorbited their property. If they did not do so, enterprising salvagers could try to do it for them, and claim the deposit if successful. This has the virtue of encouraging built-in deorbiting capability….

The best idea, though, is to attack the problem at its roots. The littering of space is an example of the “tragedy of the commons”, in which no charge is made for the use of a resource that is owned collectively. So why not charge the beneficiaries for the right to put something into orbit and keep it there? The longer an object stays up, the more the satellite owner pays. The more popular (and hence crowded) the orbit chosen, the more expensive it would be to add a satellite to it.

That raises the question of who would do the charging. The Outer Space Treaty, signed in 1967, assigns responsibility and liability for objects in orbit to the country which launches them, and entreats signatories to avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies.  It would make sense for countries with space-launch capability, and thus an interest in keeping space clean, to hammer out a new and specific agreement. A well-crafted treaty would clean up space, cause it to be used more efficiently, and raise some useful revenue from a resource currently exploited for nothing.

To deal with non-participants acting as free-riders, participants might agree to make pariahs of firms that tried to take advantage in this way… Other natural commons, notably the oceans and the atmosphere, have suffered, and still suffer, from a lack of sensible arrangements for their joint exploitation. It is not too late to stop outer space being added to that list.

Excerpt from Decluttering Low-Earth Orbit: New Brooms Needed, Economist, Jan. 16, 2020

The Worst Cultural Calamity of 2020: Blowing Up the 46 000-Year-Old Caves at the Juukan Gorge

In May 2020, mining giant Rio Tinto blasted through two rock shelters in Juukan Gorge in Western Australia in order to mine iron ore. Evidence of human habitation there dates back tens of millennia.  Rio Tinto obtained permission to mine in the area in 2013, a right which was not affected by the discovery of ancient artefacts such as stone relics, faunal remains and human hair in one of the Juukan caves a year later…

Critics of Rio Tinto say there is abundant evidence that the company was aware of the site’s importance before the blasting. For example, the BBC reported that in the days running up to the caves’ destruction in May 2020, Rio Tinto hired lawyers in case opponents tried to seek injunctions to stop them.

Some 7,000 artefacts were discovered during the excavation of one of the Juukan sites.

Excerpt from MERRIT KENNEDY, A Mining Company Blew Up A 46,000-Year-Old Aboriginal Site. Its CEO Is Resigning, NPR, Sept. 11, 2020

When Shepherds are Wolves: States Culpability in Illegal Fishing

Ecuador portrays itself as a victim of illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing by Chinese trawlers near the Galapagos islands. In fact, its fishing industry is just as bad…Since 2018 at least 136 large Ecuadorean fishing vessels have entered the Galapagos islands’ reserve, which covers 133,000 square km (51,000 square miles), says the director of the archipelago’s national park…

Many boats illegally transfer their catch on the high seas to larger vessels, which carry them to other markets. Under Ecuadorean law fishermen can sell endangered species like sharks or turtles if they catch them unintentionally. Some boats report half their catch as by-catch….The European Union, the biggest buyer of Ecuadorean tuna, has told the country to step up action against IUU or risk losing access to its market. In 2018 a committee within CITES, an international convention on trading in endangered species, recommended that its 183 members suspend trade in fish with Ecuador.

Its government is incapable of reining in a powerful industry. Fishing companies employ 100,000 people, and contribute $1.6bn a year, 1.5% of GDP to the economy. Ecuador’s tuna fleet, the largest in the eastern Pacific, has around 115 large mechanised ships. The rest of the fishing industry consists of more than 400 semi-industrial vessels and nodrizas, small boats with no machinery that catch a greater variety of fish…

Purse seine vessels and gear in this Google Earth image show the path of FADs belonging to just three vessels (typically vessels have about 100 FADs each) fishing in Central and Western Pacific (image from Parties to Nauru Agreement).

More controversial than purse seining and longlining is the use of fish aggregating devices (FADs). Industrial ships release these into the current that passes through the Galapagos islands’ protected area to attract prey, say green groups. Sometimes they fix goats’ heads on the devices to lure sharks, say Galapagans. Crews track them with GPS and surround them with nets when they leave the protected zones, entrapping turtles, sea lions, manta rays and sharks. Ecuadorean ships deploy more FADs than those of any other country, according to a study in 2015 by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Excerpt from Piscine Plunder: Ecuador, a Victim of Illegal Fishing, is Also a Culprit, Economist, Nov. 21, 2020

Saving Lives (if you can): Conflict Minerals and Covid-19

The Dodd-Frank Section 1502 forces manufacturers to disclose if any of their products contain “conflict minerals” mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and nine adjoining countries in Africa. Under the law, companies listed on U.S. stock exchanges must audit their supply chains and disclose if their products contain even traces of the designated minerals—gold, tantalum, tin and tungsten—that might have been mined in areas controlled by warlords.

The provision was sold as protecting Congolese citizens from warlords who profited from the mining and sale of these minerals…Manufacturers spent about $709 million and more than six million man-hours attempting to trace their supply chains for conflict minerals in 2014. And 90% of those companies still couldn’t confirm their products were conflict-free. Many decided to avoid the Congo region altogether and source materials from other countries and continents

When mining dropped off due to Dodd-Frank’s effects, Congolese villages were hit by reductions in education, health care and food supply. In 2014, 70 activists, academics and government officials signed a letter blasting initiatives like the Dodd-Frank provision for “contributing to, rather than alleviating, the very conflicts they set out to address”…

Then there is the race for Covid-19 vaccines and related medical supplies. including ventilators, x-ray machines and oxygen concentrators that are manufactured by using “conflict minerals.” The minerals restricted by the Dodd-Frank Act are frequently used in the composition and production of needles, syringes and vials necessary to transport and administer billions of doses of vaccines. The compressors used to refrigerate vaccines also use these minerals to function…Countries, such as China, which are not bound by Dodd-Frank, have access to Congolese tantalum that the U.S. lacks.

Excerpts from John Berlau and Seth Carter,  Dodd-Frank Undermines the Fight Against Covid, WSJ, Oct 28, 2020

To Steal To Survive: the Illegal Lumberjacks of the Amazon

The Amata logging company was supposed to represent an answer to the thorny problem of how countries like Brazil can take advantage of the Amazon rainforest without widespread deforestation.  But after spending tens of millions of dollars since 2010 to run a 178-square-mile concession in the rainforest to produce timber sustainably, Amata pulled out in April 2020. The reason: uncontrolled wildcat loggers who invaded Amata’s land, illegally toppling and stealing trees.

Amata’s executives in São Paulo said that instead of promoting and protecting legal businesses, Mr. Bolsonaro’s administration did next to nothing to control the illegal loggers who invaded the concession in the western state of Rondônia. “It’s a conflict area,” Amata Chief Executive Ana Bastos said of the land granted to the company. “Those lumberjacks steal our lumber to survive. If we try to stop them, they will fight back. It will be an eternal conflict.”

Since they pay no taxes and make no effort to protect certain species or invest in restoration, illegal loggers can charge $431 per square meter of lumber, compared with $1,511 per square meter of legally logged timber, concession operators said.  “It is like having a regular, taxpaying shop competing with lots of tax-free peddlers right in front of your door,” said Jonas Perutti, owner of Lumbering Industrial Madeflona Ltda., which also operates concessions in the Amazon…

“The organized crime that funds illegal activity in the Amazon—including deforestation, land grabbing, lumber theft and mining—remains strong and active,” said Carlos Nobre, a Brazilian climate scientist. “It seems [the criminals] aren’t frightened by the government’s zero-tolerance rhetoric or don’t believe it’s serious.”…

Wildcat loggers are among the Amazon’s poorest residents, and many feel they have an ally in Mr. Bolsonaro,[Brazil’s President]…“There’s much corruption in law enforcement, and consumers don’t care if the wood they are buying is legal or not,” said Oberdan Perondi, a co-owner of a concession that is five times as large as Amata’s and also competes with illegal loggers.

Excerpt from Paulo Trevisani and Juan Forer, Brazil Wanted to Harvest the Amazon Responsibly. Illicit Loggers Axed the Plan, WSJ, Oct. 28, 2020

Paper Parks, their Elephants and Marginal People

Since 2010 Chad has taken a step that other African countries are increasingly following. It handed management of its national park to an NGO. Since African Parks took over, the elephant population has begun to rise. In 2011 just one calf was born; in 2018, 127 were. The revival is emblematic of broader success that public-private partnerships (PPPs) are having in conserving some of the most precious parts of the planet.  Sixty years ago, when decolonization was sweeping the continent, the UN counted 3,773 “protected areas” in Africa and its surrounding waters. By 1990 the figure was 6,075; today it is 8,468. Some 14% of the continent’s land has been categorized as protected, according to the World Database on Protected Areas…

Most “protected areas” are “paper parks”, argues Peter Fearnhead, the chief executive of African Parks. In theory their demarcation denotes stewardship; in practice there is often very little care. Since its founding in 2000 the NGO has grown to manage 19 parks in 11 countries. It is the largest of an expanding number of ppp operators across the continent. The African Parks model relies on “three ms”, explains Mr Fearnhead: a clear mandate from a government (which keeps ownership of the area but hands over the running to the NGO); sound management; and money from donors such as the EU.

Zakouma is African Parks’ flagship operation. When it took over its management the priority was security. The national park was caught up in Chad’s civil conflicts in the 2000s, when rebel groups, some backed by Sudan, took on government forces. Janjaweed militias, notorious for mass murder and rape in Darfur, took advantage of the vacuum to slaughter Zakouma’s elephants and launch attacks on nearby villages.
The approach to security is a blend of low and high tech. It relies on residents of surrounding areas to alert it to poachers. Local intelligence is then combined with satellite tracking of the elephants. This helps anti-poaching rangers to know where to go.

Winning the support of people on the edge of the park has been crucial. Locals are happy to help report sightings of the Janjaweed, since they fear being robbed or murdered by them. African Parks also negotiates with nomads to ensure their caravans of camels do not go through the park.

Excerpts from Elephants’ graveyard no more: African governments are outsourcing their natural areas, Economist, Oct. 22, 2020

Modern Slavery and the Collapse of Fisheries

Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing accounts for a staggering 20-50% of the global catch. It is one reason fish stocks are plummeting: just a fifth of commercial species are sustainably fished. Illegal operators rob mostly poor coastal states of over $20bn a year and threaten the livelihoods of millions of small fishermen. A huge amount of illicit fishing happens on licensed boats, too. They might catch more than their quota, or falsely declare their catch as abundant albacore tuna instead of the more valuable bigeye. In port fisheries inspectors are always overstretched. If an operator is caught, for instance, fishing with too fine a net, the fine and confiscation are seen as a cost of doing business. Many pay up and head straight back out to sea.

The damage from illicit fishing goes well beyond fish stocks. Operators committing one kind of crime are likely to be committing others, too—cutting the fins off sharks, or even running guns or drugs. Many are also abusing their crews… A lot of them are in debt bondage…. Unscrupulous captains buy and sell these men and boys like chattel

Too often, the ultimate beneficiaries of this trade are hard to hook because they hide behind brass-plate companies and murky joint ventures. Pursuing them requires the same kind of sleuthing involved in busting criminal syndicates. An initiative led by Norway to go after transnational-fisheries crime is gaining support. Much more cross-border co-operation is needed.

At sea, technology can help. Electronic monitoring promises a technological revolution on board—Australian and American fleets are leading the way. Cameras combined with machine learning can spot suspicious behavior and even identify illicit species being brought on board…. Equally, national regulators should set basic labor standards at sea. If countries fail to follow the rules, coastal states should bar their fishing fleets from their waters. Fish-eating nations should allow imports only from responsible fleets.

Above all, governments should agree at the World Trade Organization to scrap the subsidies that promote overfishing. Of the $35bn a year lavished on the industry, about $22bn helps destroy fish stocks, mainly by making fuel too cheap. Do away with subsidies and forced labor, and half of high-seas fishing would no longer be profitable. Nor would that of China’s environmentally devastating bottom-trawling off the west African coast. 

Excerpt from Monsters of the deep: Illicit fishing devastates the seas and abuses crews, Economist, Oct., 22, 2020

What really happens in the seas? GlobalFishing Watch, Sea Shepherd, Trygg Mat Tracking

Just Forbid It – Fishing: Fishing and Marine Protected Areas

Fish, whether wild caught or farmed, now make up nearly a fifth of the animal protein that human beings eat….In this context, running the world’s fisheries efficiently might seem a sensible idea. In practice, that rarely happens. Even well-governed coastal countries often pander to their fishing lobbies by setting quotas which give little respite to battered piscine populations. Those with weak or corrupt governments may not even bother with this. Deals abound that permit outsiders legal but often badly monitored access to such countries’ waters. And many rogue vessels simply enter other people’s fishing grounds and steal their contents.

There may be a way to improve the supply side: increase the area where fishing is forbidden altogether.  This paradoxical approach, which involves the creation of so-called marine protected areas (MPAs), has already been demonstrated on several occasions to work locally. A new study “A global network of marine protected areas for food “in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences…explores the idea of extending MPAs elsewhere. If the right extensions are picked designating a mere 5% more of the world’s oceans as MPAs—which would triple the area protected—could increase the future global catch of the 811 species they looked at by more than 20%. That corresponds to an extra 10m tonnes of food a year.

The idea that restricting fishing would permit more fish to be caught may seem counterintuitive, but the logic is simple. Fish in MPAs can grow larger than those at constant risk of being pulled from the ocean. Larger fish produce more eggs. More eggs mean more fry. Many of these youngsters then grow up and move out of the safe zone, thus becoming available to catch in adjoining areas where fishing is permitted…

MPAs are especially beneficial for the worst-managed areas, most of which are tropical—and in particular for overfished species…They also have the virtue of simplicity. The setting of quotas is open to pressure to overestimate of how many fish can safely be caught…This is difficult enough for countries with well-developed fisheries-research establishments. For those without such it is little more than guesswork…Setting the rules for an MPA is, by contrast, easy. You stick up a metaphorical sign that says, “No fishing”. Knowing who is breaking the rules is easy, too. If your gear is in the water, you are fishing illegally.

Excerpt from Fishing: Stopping some fishing would increase overall catches. Economist, Oct. 31, 2020

New Fait Accompli in Space: the Artemis Accords

Seven countries have joined the United States in signing the Artemis Accords on October 13, 2020, a set of principles governing norms of behavior for those who want to participate in the Artemis lunar exploration program: Australia, Canada, Japan, Luxembourg, Italy, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom….The accords outline a series of principles that countries participating in the Artemis program are expected to adhere to, from interoperability and release of scientific data to use of space resources and preserving space heritage. Many of the principles stem directly from the Outer Space Treaty and related treaties.

NASA was originally focused on having the document apply to lunar and later Martian exploration. Japan wanted to include asteroid and comet missions as well, based on that country’s program of robotic asteroid missions like the Hayabusa2 asteroids sample return spacecraft. The document now includes asteroid and comet missions, as well as activities in orbit around the moon and Mars and the Lagrange points of the Earth-moon system.

NASA is implementing the Artemis Accords as a series of bilateral agreements between the United States and other countries, which allows them to move more quickly than if NASA sought a multilateral agreement under the aegis of the United Nations…Frans von der Dunk, a professor of space law at the University of Nebraska, drew parallels with development of international civil aviation regulations, which started with bilateral agreements between the United States and United Kingdom that were later copied among other nations. “That is something that will possibly happen here as well,” he said.

The bilateral nature of the accords, though, do present restrictions. China, for instance, cannot sign on, because NASA, under the so-called “Wolf Amendment” in US law, is restricted from bilateral cooperation with China.

The accords are outside the traditional UN framework of international space law – such as the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. The requirement to sign bilateral agreements with the US can be viewed as a way of trying to impose US preferences on how to regulate space on others. Russia has already stated that the Artemis Program is too “US-centric”.  India, Germany, France and the European Space Agency (ESA) have not yet signed on to the accords.

Excerpt from Jeff Foust ,Eight countries sign Artemis Accords, Space News, Oct. 13, 2020

Addictive Ads and Digital Dignity

Social-media firms make almost all their money from advertising. This pushes them to collect as much user data as possible, the better to target ads. Critics call this “surveillance capitalism”. It also gives them every reason to make their services as addictive as possible, so users watch more ads…

The new owner could turn TikTok from a social-media service to a digital commonwealth, governed by a set of rules akin to a constitution with its own checks and balances. User councils (a legislature, if you will) could have a say in writing guidelines for content moderation. Management (the executive branch) would be obliged to follow due process. And people who felt their posts had been wrongfully taken down could appeal to an independent arbiter (the judiciary). Facebook has toyed with platform constitutionalism now has an “oversight board” to hear user appeals…

Why would any company limit itself this way? For one thing, it is what some firms say they want. Microsoft in particular claims to be a responsible tech giant. In January  2020 its chief executive, Satya Nadella, told fellow plutocrats in Davos about the need for “data dignity”—ie, granting users more control over their data and a bigger share of the value these data create…Governments increasingly concur. In its Digital Services Act, to be unveiled in 2020, the European Union is likely to demand transparency and due process from social-media platforms…In the United States, Andrew Yang, a former Democratic presidential candidate, has launched a campaign to get online firms to pay users a “digital dividend”. Getting ahead of such ideas makes more sense than re-engineering platforms later to comply.

Excerpt from: Reconstituted: Schumpeter, Economist, Sept 5, 2020

See also Utilities for Democracy: WHY AND HOW THE ALGORITHMIC
INFRASTRUCTURE OF FACEBOOK AND GOOGLE MUST BE REGULATED
(2020)

Global Nuclear Waste Movements: from Estonia to Utah

Regulators are weighing whether a local uranium company can import the material for processing at a mill near the border of a Native American reservation. For Energy Fuels Inc , the shipment represents an economic lifeline, after the company posted an operating loss of $7.8 million for the first quarter of 2020. Its president in March 2020 described the U.S. uranium industry as being “on the cusp of complete collapse.”
But for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe living near the facility – the only operational uranium mill in the United States – the proposal has stoked fears that tribal land will become a dumping ground for global radioactive waste. Both the White Mesa mill and the tribal reservation are in San Juan County, Utah’s poorest.

The mill, built in 1979, was only meant to process conventional uranium ores from the Colorado Plateau for up to 20 years, the tribe says. The Navajo Utah Commission and Navajo Nation have also that the company’s application be rejected. “The state of Utah must recognize and acknowledge the reality that the mill is far past its design life and no longer a conventional uranium mill, but, instead, a radioactive waste dump seeking to operate for decades, if not a millennium,” the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe said in a document submitted to the state….

The 660 tons of powdered material in question, now sitting in 2,000 drums at a plant on the Estonian coast near the Russian border, would be Energy Fuels’ first-ever radioactive import from outside North America. The powder is a byproduct from tantalum and niobium mining by Estonian company Silmet, which contains uranium. But it cannot stay within Estonia, where there is no licensed facility for reprocessing radioactive material. Energy Fuels says there is enough uranium in that byproduct that it is worth processing. Opponents say Energy Fuels is simply taking in waste, which would be stored on site. According to Energy Fuels business from the shipment would help the company keep its 70 workers employed.

Energy Fuels anticipates demand for domestic uranium could rise, after the Trump administration in April 2020 proposed a $1.5 billion federal uranium reserve that would purchase uranium from domestic producers. Such a reserve, however, would need Congressional approval – a major hurdle. The reserve was one of the main proposals to come from a federal Nuclear Fuel Working Group aimed at reviving the U.S. uranium and nuclear industry. The United States currently imports over 90% of its uranium from abroad for its reactors.

Excerpts from Valerie Volcovicin Utah, a Debate Stirs Over Estonian Radioactive Waste, Reuters, July 16, 2020

Water Conflicts: Who Owns the Nile River

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is a giant edifice that would span the Blue Nile, the main tributary of the Nile river.  Half a century in the making, the hydro-electric dam is Africa’s largest, with a reservoir able to hold 74bn cubic metres of water, more than the volume of the entire Blue Nile. Once filled it should produce 6,000 megawatts of electricity, double Ethiopia’s current power supply. Millions of people could be connected to the grid for the first time. More than an engineering project, it is a source of national pride.

For Egypt, however, it seems a source of national danger. Over 90% of the country’s 100m people live along the Nile or in its vast delta. The river, long seen as an Egyptian birthright, supplies most of their water. They fear the dam will choke it off. Pro-regime pundits, not known for their subtlety, have urged the army to blow it up….Ethiopia wants to start filling the reservoir during this summer’s rainy season. On June 26th, 2020 after another round of talks, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan pledged to reach a deal within two weeks. Ethiopia agreed not to start filling the dam during that period.

Diplomats say most of the issues are resolved. But the outstanding one is big: how to handle a drought. Egypt wants Ethiopia to promise to release certain amounts of water to top up the Nile. But Ethiopia is loth to “owe” water to downstream countries or to drain the reservoir so much that electric output suffers. It wants a broader deal between all riparian states, including those on the White Nile, which flows out of Lake Victoria down through Uganda and Sudan.

Even if talks fail and Ethiopia starts filling without a deal, Egyptians will not find their taps dry. There is enough water in the reservoir behind Egypt’s Aswan High Dam to make up for any shortfall this year. But the mood in both countries is toxic. Egyptians have cast Ethiopia as a thief bent on drying up their country. In Ethiopia, meanwhile, Egypt is portrayed as a neocolonial power trampling on national sovereignty. The outcome of the talks will have political consequences in both countries, and perhaps push them to the brink of conflict—at a time when Egypt is already contemplating involvement in a war in Libya.

Ethiopia’s grand dam became a reality and a national obsession under Meles Zenawi, the longtime prime minister who ruled until 2012. His political masterstroke was asking Ethiopians to finance it through donations and the purchase of low-denomination bonds…. Most contributed voluntarily, but there was always an element of coercion. Civil servants had to donate a month’s salary at the start. Local banks and other businesses were expected to buy bonds worth millions of birr. ….

Excerpts from The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam: Showdown on the Nile, Economist, July 4, 2020

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Oil Spills of Sudan, Humanity for Africa, and East African Court of Justice

The East African Court of Justice delivered in June 2020 a temporary injunction order to the country’s Minister for Justice, the Greater Pioneer Operating Company (GPOC), and the Dar Petroleum Operating Company. The Court approved the application by Hope for Humanity Africa (H4HA), a non-governmental organization (NGO), which sought to highlight the environmental damage caused by oil spills… The NGO contends that: “Over 47,249 of the local population in Upper Nile State and 60,000 in Unity State are at risk of being exposed to the oil pollution this is because the local population depends on the wild foods for survival, the contaminated swamps, streams and rivers waters for cooking, drinking, washing, bathing and fishing.”…

The H4HA is looking for an injunction to stop multiple companies from exporting oil from the region, including CNPC of China, Petronas of Malaysia, and Oil & Natural Gas Corp. of India (ONGC) 

Excerpts South Sudan Suspended by African Union, Barred From Exporting Oil by East African Court, https://www.youngbhartiya.com, June 24, 2020

Amazon Rainforest: Source of Food for Vegans, Meat-Lovers

In the first four months of 2020 an estimated 1,202 square km (464 square miles) were cleared in the Brazilian Amazon, 55% more than during the same period in 2019, which was the worst year in a decade…Less attention has been paid to the role of big firms like JBS and Cargill, global intermediaries for beef and soya, the commodities that drive deforestation.  The companies do not chop down trees themselves. Rather, they are middlemen in complex supply chains that deal in soya and beef produced on deforested land. The process begins when speculators, who tend to operate outside the law, buy or seize land, sell the timber, graze cattle on it for several years and then sell it to a soya farmer. Land in the Amazon is five to ten times more valuable once it is deforested, says Daniel Nepstad, an ecologist. Not chopping down trees would have a large opportunity cost. In 2009 Mr Nepstad estimated that cost (in terms of forgone beef and soy output) would be $275bn over 30 years, about 16% of that year’s GDP.

Under pressure from public opinion, the big firms have made attempts to control the problem. In 2009, a damning report from Greenpeace led JBS, Marfrig and Minerva, meat giants which together handle two-thirds of Brazil’s exports, to pledge to stop buying from suppliers that deforest illegally. (The forest code allows owners to clear 20% of their land.) JBS, which sources from an area in the Amazon larger than Germany, says it has blocked 9,000 suppliers, using satellites to detect clearing.

The problem is especially acute in ranching, which accounts for roughly 80% of deforestation in the Amazon, nearly all of it illegal. “Cows move around,” explains Paulo Pianez of Marfrig. Every fattening farm the big meatpackers buy from has, on average, 23 of its own suppliers. Current monitoring doesn’t cover ranchers who breed and graze cattle, so it misses 85-90% of deforestation. Rogue fattening farms can also “launder” cattle by moving them to lawful farms—perhaps their own—right before selling them. A new Greenpeace report alleges that through this mechanism JBS, Marfrig and Minerva ended up selling beef from farms that deforested a protected Amazon reserve on the border between Brazil and Bolivia. They said they had not known about any illegality.

One reason that soya giants seem more serious than meat producers about reducing deforestation a network of investors concerned about sustainability, is that most soya is exported. The EU is the second-top destination after China. But companies struggle to get people to pay more for a “hidden commodity”… But few people will pay extra for chicken made with sustainable soya, which explains why just 2-3% is certified deforestation-free. ….Four-fifths of Brazilian beef, by contrast, is eaten in Brazil. Exports go mostly to China, Russia and the Middle East, where feeding people is a higher priority than saving trees. Investors, for their part, see beef firms as unsexy businesses with thin margins

According to soya growers, multinational firms failed to raise $250m to launch a fund for compensating farmers who retain woodland. “They demand, demand, demand, but don’t offer anything in return,” complains Ricardo Arioli….

Reducing deforestation will require consensus on tricky issues like the fate of tens of thousands of poor settlers on public lands in the Amazon, where half of deforestation takes place….

Excerpts from The AmazonL Of Chainshaws and Supply Chains, Economist, JUne 13, 2020

Preserving Seeds that Feed the World: the Svalbard Global Seed Vault

Six hundred miles from the North Pole, on an island the size of West Virginia, at the end of a tunnel bored into a mountain, lies a vault filled with more than 1 million samples of seeds harvested from 6,374 species of plants grown in 249 locations around the globe.The collection, the largest of its kind, is intended to safeguard the genetic diversity of the crops that feed the world.  If disaster wipes out a plant, seeds from the vault could be used to restore the species. If pests, disease or climate change imperil a food source, a resistant trait found among the collection could thwart the threat.

While some countries have their own seed banks—Colorado State University houses one for the U.S.—the Svalbard Global Seed Vault serves as a backup. The vault, built in 2008 at a cost of about $9 million, is owned and maintained by Norway, but its contents belong to the countries and places that provide the samples.  “It works like a safe-deposit box at the bank,” said Cary Fowler, an American agriculturalist who helped found the vault. “Norway owns the facility, but not the boxes of the seeds.”

In 2015, after the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas was destroyed in the Syrian civil war, scientists who had fled the country withdrew seeds to regenerate the plants in Lebanon and Morocco.  “It had one of the world’s biggest and best collections of wheat, barley, lentils, chickpeas, faba beans and grass pea,” Dr. Fowler said. “It was the chief supplier of a disease-resistant wheat variety for the Middle East.”  In 2017, the group returned copies of its seeds to the vault.

The 18,540-square-foot seed vault includes three rooms with the capacity to house 4.5 million samples of 500 seeds each—a maximum of 2.25 billion seeds. The environment’s natural temperature remains below freezing year round, but the seeds are stored at a chillier -18 degrees Celsius, or around -0.4 degrees Fahrenheit. They’re expected to last for decades, centuries or perhaps even millennia….

While dwindling diversity might not seem like an imminent threat, four chemical companies now control more than 60% of global proprietary seed sales…That concentration of power, some worry, could lead to less agricultural variety and more genetic uniformity…In the meantime, the seed vault (which doesn’t store genetically modified seeds) will continue to accept deposits in an effort to preserve all of the options it can.

Excerpts from Craven McGinty, Plan to Save World’s Crops Lives in Norwegian Bunker, WSJ,  May 29, 2020

Choking the Water: Dams, Dams and More Dams

Since Tibet is part of China, Chinese engineers have been making the most of that potential. They have built big dams not only on rivers like the Yellow and the Yangzi, which flow across China to the Pacific, but also on others, like the Brahmaputra and the Mekong, which pass through several more countries on their way to the sea.

China has every right to do so. Countries lucky enough to control the sources of big rivers often make use of the water for hydropower or irrigation before it sloshes away across a border. But If the countries nearest the source of water, like China,  suck up too much of the flow, or even simply stop silt flowing down or fish swimming up by building dams, the consequences in the lower reaches of the river can be grim: parched crops, collapsed fisheries, salty farmland.

Tension and recrimination have been the order of the day for China and its neighbours… In part, this is because a river like the Mekong does not contain enough water to go round. China has already built 11 dams across the main river (never mind its tributaries) and has plans for eight more; the downstream states have built two and are contemplating seven more. Last year, during a drought, the river ran so low that Cambodia had to turn off a big hydropower plant. Even when rainfall is normal, the altered flow and diminished siltation are causing saltwater to intrude into the Mekong delta, which is the breadbasket of Vietnam, and depleting the fish stocks that provide the only protein for millions of poor Cambodians.

China has long resisted any formal commitment to curb its construction of dams or to guarantee downstream countries a minimum allocation of water. It will not even join the Mekong River Commission, a body intended to help riparian countries resolve water-sharing disputes…

China has not signed any agreements about managing the Mekong with the other countries it flows through, so is not obliged to share a particular amount of water with them, nor even provide data on the flow or any warning about the operations of its dams. It does provide the Mekong River Commission with a trickle of information about water levels and planned releases from dams, which helps with flood-control lower down the river

Excerps from Water Torture: Hydropower in Asia, Economist, May 16, 2020; Torrent to Tickle: the Mekong, Economist, May 16, 2020

Left to their Own Bad Devices: the Future of Ogoni Land in Nigeria

The decades-overdue clean-up of Ogoniland, after years of oil spills from the pipelines that criss-cross the region, is finally under way. But the billion-dollar project — funded by Nigeria’s national oil company and Royal Dutch Shell — is mired in allegations of corruption and mismanagement.  “We are not pleased with what is going on,” said Mike Karikpo, an attorney with Friends of the Earth International and a member of the Ogoniland team that negotiated the creation of the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project (Hyprep), the government body running the clean-up… 

Nigeria is Africa’s biggest oil producer, pumping out about 1.8m barrels per day. It provides roughly 90 per cent of the country’s foreign exchange and more than half of government revenues.  The clean-up began only the summer 2019, about a year after the first of an expected five tranches of $180m in funding was released to Hyprep. Mr Karikpo complains of a lack of transparency, alleging that planning, budgeting and awarding of contracts took place behind closed doors. Work started at the height of the rainy season, washing away much of the progress as contaminated soil collected for treatment was swept back into the environment…

Ogoniland, like the broader Niger Delta, has become more polluted and development has stalled, with little to show for the billions of dollars in crude that has been extracted. Critics have now accused Hyprep of being, like much of Nigeria’s oil sector, a vehicle for political patronage and graft. This year 16 companies were awarded contracts for the first phase of the clean-up, which — to the consternation of critics — focuses on the least contaminated parts of Ogoniland.

An investigation by the news site Premium Times found that almost all the companies were set up for other purposes, including poultry farming, car sales and construction, and had no experience of tackling oil pollution.  Meanwhile, insiders have questioned Hyprep’s capacity to handle such a massive project…

Shell and Hyprep have rejected the criticism.  Shell, which closed its Ogoniland operations in 1993, said it accepted responsibility “for spills arising from its operations”, but that some of the blame for the pollution must go to thieves who illegally tapped into pipelines and makeshift refining operations in the Delta’s creeks

Excerpts from Craft and Mismanagement Taint Nigeria’s Oil CleanUp, Financial Times, Dec. 29, 2019

Viva Over-Fishing! Addicted to Over-Consumption of Fish

In 2015 world leaders signed up to a long list of sustainable development goals, among them an agreement to limit government subsidies that contribute to overfishing. Negotiators at the World Trade Organisation (wto) were told to finish the job “by 2020”. They have missed their deadline. Overfishing is a tragedy of the commons, with individuals and countries motivated by short-term self-interest to over-consume a limited resource. By one measure, the share of fish stocks being fished unsustainably has risen from 10% in 1974 to 33% in 2015.

Governments make things worse with an estimated $22bn of annual subsidies that increase capacity, including for gear, ice, fuel and boat-building. One study estimated that half of fishing operations in the high seas (waters outside any national jurisdiction) would be unprofitable without government support.

 Trade ministers were supposed to sort it all out at WTO meeting in December in Kazakhstan. But the meeting was postponed till June 2020. Moreover, the murky nature of subsidies for unregulated and unreported fishing makes their work unusually difficult. Governments do not have lines in their budget that say “subsidies for illegal fishing”, points out Alice Tipping of the International Institute for Sustainable Development, a think-tank.

Negotiators are trying to devise a system that would alert governments to offending boats, which would become ineligible for future subsidies. That is tangling them up in arguments about what to do when a boat is found in disputed territory, how to deal with frivolous accusations and how to treat boats that are not associated with any country offering subsidies.

When it comes to legal fishing of overfished stocks, it is easier to spot the subsidies in government budget lines, but no easier to agree on what to do about them. America and the European Union, for example, have been arguing over whether to allow subsidies up to a cap, or whether to ban some subsidies and take a lenient approach to the rest. The EU favours the second option, arguing that where fisheries are well-managed, subsidies are not harmful. To others this looks like an attempt to ensure any eventual deal has loopholes.

Further complicating matters is a long-running row about how to treat developing countries. All WTO members agree that some need special consideration. But as an American representative pointed out at a recent WTO meeting, 17 of the world’s 26 most prolific fishing countries are developing ones. That means broad carve-outs for them would seriously weaken any deal.

China, both the world’s biggest fisher and biggest subsidiser of fishing, has proposed capping subsidies in proportion to the number of people in each country who work in the industry. But it is the world leader here, too, with 10m at the last count (in 2016). Other countries fear such a rule would constrain China too little.

Excerpts from The World Trade Organization: What’s the Catch, Economist, Jan 4, 2020

When the Fish are Gone: As Bad as it Could Get in the Yangtze River

China imposed a 10-year commercial fishing ban in January 2020  on the Yangtze – the first ever for Asia’s longest river – in a bid to protect its aquatic life.  Facing dwindling fish stocks and declining biodiversity in the 6,300km (3,915-mile) river, the Chinese government decided seasonal moratoriums were not enough. The ban will be applied at 332 conservation sites along the river. It will be extended to cover the main river course and key tributaries by January 1 2021, according to a State Council notice.   Dam-building, pollution, overfishing, river transport and dredging had worsened the situation for the waterway’s aquatic species.  Fishermen using nets with smaller holes and illegal practices such as the use of explosives or electrocution have also contributed to the river’s decline

 President Xi Jinping warned that the Yangtze River had become so depleted that its biodiversity index was as bad as it could get, saying it had reached what could be described as the “no fish” level… Back in 1954, the annual catch from the Yangtze was about 427,000 tonnes, but in recent years it had been less than 100,000 tonnes.
According to an official estimate, about 280,000 fishermen in 10 provinces along the Yangtze River will be affected by the ban. Their 113,000 registered fishing boats will be grounded or destroyed. The government has allocated funds to help those affected find alternative work and provide them with welfare and retraining. To counter illegal fishing, he said river authorities would be equipped with speedboats, drones and video surveillance systems. Fishermen would also be recruited to patrol the river.

Excerpts from China bans fishing in depleted Yangtze River for 10 years to protect aquatic life, South China Morning Post, Jan. 3, 2020

A Brand New World: Mapping the Ocean Floor

Mapping of the ocean floor may expand under an order signed by President Donald Trump on in  November, 2019 to create a federal plan to explore U.S. coastal waters. The announcement…comes amid growing international interest in charting the sea floor as unmanned aquatic drones and other new technologies promise to make the work cheaper and faster. The maps, also created by ship-towed sonar arrays, are crucial to understanding basic ocean dynamics, finding biological hot spots, and surveying mineral, oil, and gas deposits.

But much of the ocean floor remains unmapped; an international campaign called Seabed 2030 aims to map all of it in detail by 2030. Such maps cover just 40% of the 11.6 million square kilometers in the U.S. exclusive economic zone, which extends 320 kilometers from the coasts of all U.S. states and territories—an area larger than the total U.S. land mass. Today, those maps are a hodgepodge drawn from government, industry, and academic research, says Vicki Ferrini, a marine geophysicist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York. The federal plan, she says, could be a “game changer.”

Excerpts from  United States to Survey Nearby Sea Floor, Science, Nov. 29, 2019, at 6469

The Jihadist Mafia: Controlling the Gold of Sahel

Burkina Faso is struggling to contain a fast-growing jihadist insurgency. Along with Mali and Niger, it has become the main front line against terrorists in the Sahel, a dry strip of land that runs along the edge of the Sahara. This year alone the conflict has killed more than 1,600 people and forced half a million from their homes in Burkina Faso….A worrying new trend is a battle by jihadists and other armed groups to take control of the region’s gold rush.

Although gold has long been mined in the region…it has boomed in recent years with the discovery of shallow deposits that stretch from Sudan to Mauritania. International mining companies have invested as much as $5bn in west African production over the past decade, but the rush has also lured hundreds of thousands of unsophisticated “artisanal” miners. The International Crisis Group (ICG), an NGO, reckons that more than 2m people are involved in small-scale mining in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. In total they dig up 40-95 tonnes of gold a year, worth some $1.9bn-4.5bn.

Artisanal Mining’s Claustrophobic Conditions

This rush—in a region where states are already weak and unable to provide security—has sucked in a variety of armed groups and jihadists, including the likes of Ansar Dine and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara…The jihadists probably have direct control of fewer than ten mines…But they have influence over many more. In some areas artisanal miners are forced to pay “taxes” to the jihadists. In others, such as Burkina Faso’s Soum province, the miners hire jihadists to provide security… Other armed groups such as ethnic militias are also in on the bonanza and collect cash to guard mines. International mining firms may also be funding the jihadists by paying ransoms for abducted employees or “protection” money to keep mining, according to a study published by the OECD, a club of mostly rich countries.

For the moment much of Burkina Faso’s artisanal production is sneaked into Togo… Togo does not produce much gold domestically but it sent more than 12 tonnes of gold to Dubai in 2016. Gold is also taken out of the Sahel through major airports in hand luggage. 

The resource curse: How west Africa’s gold rush is funding jihadists, Economist, Nov. 16, 2019

The Truth About Forest Fires

BBC has used satellite data to assess the severity of fires in Brazil, Indonesia, Siberia and Central Africa.  It has concluded that although fires in 2019 have wrought significant damage to the environment, they have been worse in the past.   More than 35,000 fires have been detected so far in 2019 in East Asia  spreading smoky haze to Malaysia, Singapore, the south of Thailand and the Philippines, causing a significant deterioration in air quality.  But this is substantially fewer than many other years including those, such as 2015, exacerbated by the El Nino effect which brought unusually dry weather.

Haze Pollution

In Indonesia, peatland is set alight by corporations and small-scale farmers to clear land for palm oil, pulp and paper plantations, and can spread into protected forested areas.  The problem has accelerated in recent years as more land has been cleared for expanding plantations for the lucrative palm oil trade.  Old palm trees on plantations that no longer bear fruit are often set on fire to be replaced by younger ones.

The number of recorded fires in Brazil rose significantly in 2019, but there were more in most years in the period 2002 to 2010.  There is a similar pattern for other areas of Brazilian forestry that are not part of the Amazon basin.  For 2019, we have data up to the end of August, and the overall area burnt for those eight months is 45,000 sq km. This has already surpassed all the area burnt in 2018, but appears unlikely to reach the peaks seen in the previous decade… “Fire signals an end of the deforestation process,” says Dr Michelle Kalamandeen, a tropical ecologist on the Amazon rainforest.  “Those large giant rainforest trees that we often associate with the Amazon are chopped down, left to dry and then fire is used as a tool for clearing the land to prepare for pasture, crops or even illegal mining.”

The environmental campaign group Greenpeace has called the fires that have engulfed the Russian region of Siberia this year one of the worst outbreaks this century.  The cloud of smoke generated was reported to have been the size of all the European Union countries combined.  Forest fires in Siberia are common in the summer, but record-breaking temperatures and strong winds have made the situation particularly bad.  Russia’s Federal Forestry Agency says more than 10 million hectares (100,000 sq km) have been affected since the start of 2019, already exceeding the total of 8.6 million for the whole of 2018…. Drawing on data for the number of fires, it is clear that there have been other bad years, notably in 2003.

Nasa satellites have identified thousands of fires in Angola, Zambia and DR Congo.However, these have not reached record levels.  “I don’t think there’s any evidence that the fires we’re seeing in Africa are worse than we’ve seen in recent years,” Denis McClean, of the UN Disaster Risk Reduction agency, told the BBC.  According to data analysed by Global Forest Watch, fires in DR Congo and Zambia are just above average for the season but have been higher in past years.  In Angola, however, fires have been reported at close to record levels this year.

Some have drawn comparisons with the situation in the Amazon, but the fires in sub-Saharan Africa are different.  Take DR Congo – most fires are being recorded in settled parts of the country’s southern, drier forest and savannah areas, and so far not in tropical rainforest.  Experts say it is difficult to know what is causing these fires, which are seasonal. Many are likely to be on grassland, woodland or savannah in poor farming communities.  “Fires are very important landscape management tools and are used to clear land for planting crops,” says Lauren Williams, a specialist in Central and West African forests at the World Resources Institute.

Excerpts from Jack Goodman & Olga RobinsonIndonesia haze: Are forest fires as bad as they seem?, BBC, Sept. 19, 2019. For more details and data see BBC

Who Owns Your Voice? Grabbing Biometric Data

Increasingly sophisticated technology that detects nuances in sound inaudible to humans is capturing clues about people’s likely locations, medical conditions and even physical features.Law-enforcement agencies are turning to those clues from the human voice to help sketch the faces of suspects. Banks are using them to catch scammers trying to imitate their customers on the phone, and doctors are using such data to detect the onset of dementia or depression.  That has… raised fresh privacy concerns, as consumers’ biometric data is harnessed in novel ways.

“People have known that voice carries information for centuries,” said Rita Singh, a voice and machine-learning researcher at Carnegie Mellon University who receives funding from the Department of Homeland Security…Ms. Singh measures dozens of voice-quality features—such as raspiness or tremor—that relate to the inside of a person’s vocal tract and how an individual voice is produced. She detects so-called microvolumes of air that help create the sound waves that make up the human voice. The way they resonate in the vocal tract, along with other voice characteristics, provides clues on a person’s skull structure, height, weight and physical surroundings, she said.

Nuance’s voice-biometric and recognition software is designed to detect the gender, age and linguistic background of callers and whether a voice is synthetic or recorded. It helped one bank determine that a single person was responsible for tens of millions of dollars of theft, or 18% of the fraud the firm encountered in a year, said Brett Beranek, general manager of Nuance’s security and biometrics business.

Audio data from customer-service calls is also combined with information on how consumers typically interact with mobile apps and devices, said Howard Edelstein, chairman of behavioral biometric company Biocatch. The company can detect the cadence and pressure of swipes and taps on a smartphone.  How a person holds a smartphone gives clues about their age, for example, allowing a financial firm to compare the age of the normal account user to the age of the caller…

If such data collected by a company were improperly sold or hacked, some fear recovering from identity theft could be even harder because physical features are innate and irreplaceable.

Sarah Krouse, What Your Voice Reveals About You, WSJ, Aug. 13, 2019

Where to Go? 1 Million Tons Radioactive Water at Fukushima

In August 2019, Tepco projected that storage of radioactive water at the Fukushima nuclear plant would reach full capacity by around summer 2022 even after the expansion — the first time it has issued such a precise estimate.  According to Tepco, the Fukushima No. 1 plant had 960 massive tanks containing 1.15 million tons of treated water as of July 18, 2019. Water that has touched the highly radioactive melted fuel debris has been cleaned up through water treatment machines and is stored in the tanks, but the high-tech treatment machines are able to remove most radionuclides except tritium. The plant currently sees an increase of contaminated water by 170 tons a day, Tepco says.

Releasing tritium-tainted water into the sea in a controlled manner is common practice at nuclear power plants around the world, and it was generally considered the most viable option as it could be done quickly and would cost the least.  The head of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, Toyoshi Fuketa, has long said that releasing the treated water into the sea is the most reasonable option, but people in Fukushima, especially fishermen, fear it will damage the region’s reputation.

Addressing those concerns, the government panel, launched in November 2016, has been looking for the best option in terms of guarding against reputational damage. Injecting it into the ground, discharging it as steam or hydrogen, or solidification followed by underground burial have all been on the table. Under the current plan, Tepco is set to increase the tank space to store 1.37 million tons of water a total, but estimates show that will only last until summer 2022.  But the more space it creates, the bigger the decommissioning headache becomes.

Excerpts from KAZUAKI NAGAT, Fukushima nuclear plant to run out of tanks to store tritium-laced water in three years, Tepco says, Japan Times, Aug. 9, 2019
BY KAZUAKI NAGATA

Mining the Ocean: the Fate of Sea Pangolin

A snail that lives near hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor east of Madagascar has become the first deep-sea animal to be declared endangered because of the threat of mining.  The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) added the scaly-foot snail (Chrysomallon squamiferum) to its Red List of endangered species on 18 July, 2019 — amid a rush of companies applying for exploratory mining licenses…. The scaly-foot snail is found at only three hydrothermal vents in the Indian Ocean.  Two of those three vents are currently under mining exploration licences,…Even one exploratory mining foray into this habitat could destroy a population of these snails by damaging the vents or smothering the animals under clouds of sediment..

Full-scale mining of the deep seabed can’t begin in international waters until the International Seabed Authority (ISA) — a United Nations agency tasked with regulating sea-bed mining — finalizes a code of conduct, which it hopes to do by 2020….The biggest challenge to determining whether the scaly-foot snail warranted inclusion on the Red List was figuring out how to assess the extinction risk for animals that live in one of the weirdest habitats on Earth…

When the IUCN considers whether to include an organism on the Red List, researchers examine several factors that could contribute to its extinction. They include the size of a species’ range and how fragmented its habitat is…The IUCN settled on two criteria to assess the extinction risk for deep-sea species: the number of vents where they’re found, and the threat of mining.   In addition to the scaly-foot snail, the researchers are assessing at least 14 more hydrothermal vent species for possible inclusion on the Red List.

Excerpts from Ocean Snail is First Animal to be Officially Endangered by Deep-Sea Mining, Nature, July 22, 2019

On Sea Pangolins see YouTube video

Why a Dumb Internet is Best

Functional splintering [of the internet] is already happening. When tech companies build “walled gardens”, they decide the rules for what happens inside the walls, and users outside the network are excluded…

Governments are playing catch-up but they will eventually reclaim the regulatory power that has slipped from their grasp. Dictatorships such as China retained control from the start; others, including Russia, are following Beijing. With democracies, too, asserting their jurisdiction over the digital economy, a fragmentation of the internet along national lines is more likely. …The prospect of a “splinternet” has not been lost on governments. To avoid it, Japan’s G20 presidency has pushed for a shared approach to internet governance. In January 2019, prime minister Shinzo Abe called for “data free flow with trust”. The 2019 Osaka summit pledged international co-operation to “encourage the interoperability of different frameworks”.

But Europe is most in the crosshairs of those who warn against fragmentation…US tech giants have not appreciated EU authorities challenging their business model through privacy laws or competition rulings. But more objective commentators, too, fear the EU may cut itself off from the global digital economy. The critics fail to recognise that fragmentation can be the best outcome if values and tastes fundamentally differ…

If Europeans collectively do not want micro-targeted advertising, or artificial intelligence-powered behaviour manipulation, or excessive data collection, then the absence on a European internet of services using such techniques is a gain, not a loss. The price could be to miss out on some services available elsewhere… More probably, non-EU providers will eventually find a way to charge EU users in lieu of monetising their data…Some fear EU rules make it hard to collect the big data sets needed for AI training. But the same point applies. EU consumers may not want AI trained to do intrusive things. In any case, Europe is a big enough market to generate stripped, non-personal data needed for dumber but more tolerable AI, though this may require more harmonised within-EU digital governance. Indeed, even if stricter EU rules splinter the global internet, they also create incentives for more investment into EU-tailored digital products. In the absence of global regulatory agreements, that is a good second best for Europe to aim for.

Excerpts from Martin Sandbu,  Europe Should Not be Afraid of Splinternet,  FT, July 2, 2019

Who Owns the Riches of the Melting North Pole

A competition for the North Pole heated up in May 2019, as Canada became the third country to claim—based on extensive scientific data—that it should have sovereignty over a large swath of the Arctic Ocean, including the pole. Canada’s bid, submitted to the United Nations’s Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), joins competing claims from Russia and Denmark. Like theirs, it is motivated by the prospect of mineral riches: the large oil reserves believed to lie under the Arctic Ocean, which will become more accessible as the polar ice retreats. And all three claims, along with dozens of similar claims in other oceans, rest on extensive seafloor mapping, which has proved to be a boon to science…

Coastal nations have sovereign rights over an exclusive economic zone (EEZ), extending by definition 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) out from their coastline. But the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea opened up the possibility of expanding that zone if a country can convince CLCS that its continental shelf extends beyond the EEZ’s limits…..Most of the 84 submissions so far were driven by the prospect of oil and gas, although advances in deep-sea mining technology have added new reasons to apply. Brazil, for example, filed an application in December 2018 that included the Rio Grande Rise, a deep-ocean mountain range 1500 kilometers southeast of Rio De Janeiro that’s covered in cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts.

The Rio Grande Rise, Brazil

To make a claim, a country has to submit detailed data on the shape of the sea floor and on its sediment, which is thicker on the shelf than in the deep ocean. …CLCS, composed of 21 scientists in fields such as geology and hydrography who are elected by member states, has accepted 24 of the 28 claims it has finished evaluating, some partially or with caveats; in several cases, it has asked for follow-up submissions with more data. Australia was the first country to succeed, adding 2.5 million square kilometers to its territory in 2008. New Zealand gained undersea territory six times larger than its terrestrial area. But CLCS only judges the merit of each individual scientific claim; it has no authority to decide boundaries when claims overlap. To do that, countries have to turn to diplomatic channels once the science is settled.

The three claims on the North Pole revolve around the Lomonosov Ridge, an underwater mountain system that runs from Ellesmere Island in Canada’s Qikiqtaaluk region to the New Siberian Islands of Russia, passing the North Pole. Both countries claim the ridge is geologically connected to their continent, whereas Denmark says it is also tied to Greenland, a Danish territory. As the ridge is thought to be continental crust, the territorial extensions could be extensive)

Lomonosov Ridge, Amerasian Basin

Tensions flared when Russia planted a titanium flag on the sea floor beneath the North Pole in 2007, after CLCS rejected its first claim, saying more data were needed. The Canadian foreign minister at the time likened the move to the land grabs of early European colonizers. Not that the North Pole has any material value: “The oil potential there is zip,” says geologist Henry Dick of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. “The real fight is over the Amerasian Basin” where large amounts of oil are thought to be locked up…

There’s also a proposal to make the North Pole international, like Antarctica (South Pole), as a sign of peace, says Oran Young, a political scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “It seems a very sensible idea.”

Richard Kemeny, Fight for the Arctic Ocean is a boon for science, June 21, 2019

Who to Save? Forests or Farmers

Agriculture continues to present the biggest threat to forests worldwide. Some experts predict that crop production needs to be doubled by 2050 to feed the world at the current pace of population growth and dietary changes toward higher meat and dairy consumption. Scientists generally agree that productivity increase alone is not going to do the trick. Cropland expansion will be needed, most likely at the expense of large swathes of tropical forests – as much as 200 million hectares by some estimates. 

Nowhere is this competition for land between forests and agriculture more acute than in Africa. Its deforestation rate has surpassed those of Latin America and Southeast Asia. Sadly, the pace shows no sign of slowing down. Africa’s agriculture sector needs to feed its burgeoning populations- the fastest growing in the world…. What’s more, for the millions of unemployed African youth, a vibrant agriculture sector will deliver jobs and spur structural transformation of the rural economy. Taken together, the pressures on forests are immense. Unless interventions are made urgently, a large portion of Africa’s forests will be lost in the coming decades – one farm plot at a time.

The difficult question is: what interventions can protect forests and support farmers at the same time? 

To tackle these complex challenges, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) has launched a new initiative: The “Governing Multifunctional Landscapes (GML) in Sub-Saharan Africa: Managing Trade-Offs Between Social and Ecological Impacts”  Read more

Excerpts from XIAOXUE WENG et al Can forests and smallholders live in harmony in Africa?, CIFOR, June 3, 2019

Biodiversity and Respect for Human Rights

The instinctive response of many environmentalists  is to to fence off protected areas as rapidly and extensively as possible. That thought certainly dominates discussions of the Convention on Biological Diversity, the main relevant international treaty. An eight-year-old addendum to the pact calls for 17% of the world’s land surface and 10% of the ocean’s water column (that is, the water under 10% of the ocean’s surface) to be protected by 2020. Currently, those figures are 15% and 6%. Campaigners want the next set of targets, now under discussion, to aim for 30% by 2030—and even 50% by 2050. This last goal, biogeographers estimate, would preserve 85% of life’s richness in the long run.  As rallying cries go, “Nature needs half” has a ring to it, but not one that sounds so tuneful in the poor countries where much of the rhetorically required half will have to be found. Many people in such places already feel Cornered by Protected Areas.” (See also Biodiversity and Human Rights)

James Watson, chief scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society (wcs), another American charity, has an additional worry about focusing on the fence-it-off approach. If you care about the presence of species rather than the absence of humans, he warns, “‘nature needs half’ could be a catastrophe—if you get the wrong half.” Many terrestrial protected areas are places that are mountainous or desert or both. Expanding them may not translate into saving more species. Moreover, in 2009 Lucas Joppa and Alexander Pfaff, both then at Duke University in North Carolina, showed that protected areas disproportionately occupy land that could well be fine even had it been left unprotected: agriculture-unfriendly slopes, areas remote from transport links or human settlements, and so on. Cordoning off more such places may have little practical effect.

Southern Appalachians, Virginia. image from wikipedia

 In the United States it is the underprotected southern Appalachians, in the south-east of the country, that harbour the main biodiversity hotspots. The largest patches of ring-fenced wilderness, however, sit in the spectacular but barren mountain ranges of the west and north-west. In Brazil, the world’s most speciose country, the principal hotspots are not, as might naively be assumed, in the vast expanse of the Amazon basin, but rather in the few remaining patches of Atlantic rainforest that hug the south-eastern coast.

Deforestation Atlantic Rainforest in Rio de Janeiro. Image from wikipedia

Nor is speciosity the only consideration. So is risk-spreading. A team from the University of Queensland, in Australia, led by Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, has used a piece of financial mathematics called modern portfolio theory to select 50 coral reefs around the world as suitable, collectively, for preservation. Just as asset managers pick uncorrelated stocks and bonds in order to spread risk, Dr Hoegh-Guldberg and his colleagues picked reefs that have different exposures to rising water temperatures, wave damage from cyclones and so on. The resulting portfolio includes reefs in northern Sumatra and the southern Red Sea that have not previously registered on conservationists’ radar screens…

Another common finding—counterintuitive to those who take the “fence-it-all-off” approach—is that a mixed economy of conservation and exploitation can work. For example, rates of deforestation in a partly protected region of Peru, the Alto Mayo, declined by 78% between 2011 and 2017, even as coffee production increased from 20 tonnes a year to 500 tonnes.

Environmental groups can also draw on a growing body of academic research into the effective stewardship of particular species. For too long, says William Sutherland, of Cambridge University, conservationists have relied on gut feelings. Fed up with his fellow practitioners’ confident but unsubstantiated claims about their methods, and inspired by the idea of “evidence-based medicine”, he launched, in 2004, an online repository of relevant peer-reviewed literature called Conservation Evidence.  Today this repository contains more than 5,400 summaries of documented interventions. These are rated for effectiveness, certainty and harms. Want to conserve bird life threatened by farming, for example? The repository lists 27 interventions, ranging from leaving a mixture of seed for wild birds to peck (highly beneficial, based on 41 studies of various species in different countries) to marking bird nests during harvest (likely to be harmful or ineffective, based on a single study of lapwing in the Netherlands). The book version of their compendium, “What Works in Conservation”, runs to 662 pages. It has been downloaded 35,000 times.

Excerpts from How to preserve nature on a tight budget, Economist, Feb. 9, 2919

Who is Afraid of Bats?

More than 50,000 of the fruit bats are thought to have been killed in Mauritius since 2015, in an attempt to protect fruit in orchards.  The bats – also known as flying foxes – are resorting to eating in orchards to survive because only 5 per cent of Mauritius’s native forests remain, animal experts warned.  Fruit bats are vital for biodiversity as they pollinate flowers and scatter seeds, enabling trees and plants to grow and spread, according to conservationists.  But populations of the flying foxes have fallen by more than 50 per cent in four years, said Vincent Florens, an ecologist at the University of Mauritius. Some believe fewer than 30,000 now remain.

The first cull, in 2015, killed 30,000, and in a second cull, the following year, 7,380 were targeted.  The latest cull involved 13,000.  Prof Florens said he believed the number killed is much higher than the 50,300 government figure.  “The culls took place late in the year, when many mothers were pregnant or had babies,” he told National Geographic. “You shoot one bat and basically kill two.” Others were likely to have been injured and died later, he said.

Scientists are supporting a lawsuit against the government on grounds of animal welfare violations to prevent any more culls…Mahen Seeruttun, Mauritius’s minister of agro-industry and food security, told FDI Spotlight: “We have a large population of bats who will eat fruit crops.

Excerpts from Endangered fruit bats ‘being driven to extinction’ in Mauritius after mass culls kill 50,000, Independent, Mar. 4, 2019

Can Gucci Save the Steppes of Mongolia?

 Essential to the identity and economy of Mongolia—more than half of the country’s 3 million people live there—the grasslands are under increasing threat from overgrazing and climate change. Multiple studies over the past decade have shown that the once lush Mongolian steppe, an expanse twice the size of Texas that is one of the world’s largest remaining grasslands, is slowly turning into a desert. An estimated 70% of all the grazing lands in the country are considered degraded to some degree…. 

The collective here of a little more than 100 families is at the center of an unusual effort, run by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), to turn space-based maps of the grasslands into a tool for making grazing more sustainable. Supported by the world’s largest mining company and a luxury apparel giant, the pilot effort uses data gathered by NASA and Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, to help herders find places where the vegetation is healthy enough to sustain their voracious herds.

 Meanwhile, development, especially mining, has exponentially increased water usage. Twelve percent of rivers and 21% of lakes have dried up entirely. An increasing number of people, vehicles, and heavy equipment put additional stress on the land.  But one factor stands out: overgrazing, which, according to a 2013 study by researchers at Oregon State University in Corvallis, has caused 80% of the recent decline in vegetation on the grasslands.

Mongolia is now the world’s second-largest cashmere producer, after China. Goats, which account for more than half of all grazing animals on the grasslands, can be more lucrative than other livestock, but they’re also much more destructive than the sheep they’ve replaced because they eat roots and the flowers that seed new grasses=s.

WCS’s Sustainable Cashmere project may offer part of the solution. The project, whose budget the organizers won’t disclose, is funded by mining giant Rio Tinto, which runs a massive copper mine not far away, and Kering, the French luxury apparel giant that owns Gucci, Balenciaga, and other brands that need cashmere. Both aim to help offset their impact on the Mongolian environment, a requirement of Rio’s mining agreement and part of Kering’s corporate social responsibility program.

Excerpts Kathleen McLaughlin, Saving the steppes, Science, Feb. 1, 2019

How to Discover an Illegal Logger

Tropical forests nearly the size of India are set to be destroyed by 2050 if current trends continue causing species loss, displacement and a major increase in climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions.  Prior to the launch of the Global Land Analysis and Discovery (GLAD) alerts, researchers would have to manually track images of logging in specific areas.

The new process, developed by scientists at the University of Maryland and Google, uses an algorithm to analyze weekly updates of satellite images and sends automatic notifications about new logging activity.”This is a game changer,” said Matt Finer from the Amazon Conservation Association, an environmental group.

His organization tracks illegal logging in Peru, sending images of deforestation to policymakers, environmentalists and government officials to try and protect the Amazon rainforest.  In the past, he would rely on tips from local people about encroachment by loggers, then look at older satellite images to try and corroborate the claims.

“With this new data we can focus on getting actionable information to policy makers,” Finer told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.  “We have seen how powerful these images can be,” he said, citing a case where his group brought pictures of illegal gold miners cutting down trees to the Peruvian government, who then removed the miners.

Excerpt from  CHRIS ARSENAULT, New satellite program aims to cut down illegal logging in real time, Reuters, Mar. 2, 2016

Unwanted Fish: Another Waste

Long before fillets reach your dinner plate, lots of seafood is thrown away. Overboard, actually. As fishing crews sort through their catches, they toss unwanted fish back into the sea—as much as 20% of the global catch. The vast majority die. On 1 January, 2019 the wasteful practice became illegal in waters of the European Union. Scientists believe the policy will lead to more efficient fisheries and eventually boost stocks, while incentivizing more selective fishing gear and strategies. But in the short term it could mean hardship for the industry and perhaps even compromise fisheries data, if hidden cheating becomes widespread.

Few expect all fishing vessels to obey the discard ban. “Put yourself in the boots of a fishermen who can see he will run out of quota for a species. If he does, he would have to tie up for the rest of the year. He might have to sell the boat, or sell the house,” says Barrie Deas, CEO of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations in York, U.K. “What’s he going to do?”  Scofflaws could jeopardize not just fish stocks, but also data about how they are faring. Researchers, who suggest catch levels to regulators, get their discard data largely from independent observers on just a few boats—less than 1% of the EU fleet. Observed boats are now likely to discard much fewer fish than other vessels, leaving an official undercount of the discard rate and a falsely rosy picture of how heavily stocks are fished, says Lisa Borges, a fisheries biologist who runs a consultancy called FishFix in Lisbon. “It could bring about a very big, negative change,” Borges says. “I get very worried about European fisheries management.”

Environmentalists want to toughen up enforcement by installing cameras on ships, the practice in New Zealand and a few other places with discard bans. But Voces de Onaindi says this is impractical on some vessels and raises privacy concerns. Countries where discard bans have succeeded, including Norway and Iceland, have gradually introduced incentives and controls to develop the economic use of unwanted fish and create a culture of regulatory compliance. Those steps, Andersen says, lessen conflict but can take decades to achieve.

Ships banned from throwing unwanted fish overboard
Erik Stokstad

Amazon Turtles are Back! Thanks to Local Vigilantes

The historically over-exploited Giant South American Turtle is making a significant comeback on river beaches in the Brazilian Amazon thanks to local protection efforts, say researchers at the University of East Anglia.  Their results, published in Nature Sustainability, show that Giant Turtle populations are well on their way to full recovery on beaches guarded by local vigilantes. There are now over nine times more turtles hatching on these beaches than there were in 1977, equivalent to an annual increase of over 70,000 hatchlings.  The beach survey showed that, of over 2000 turtle nests monitored on protected beaches, only two per cent were attacked by poachers. In contrast, on unprotected beaches, poachers had harvested eggs from 99 per cent of the 202 nests surveyed.The beach protection programme along the Juruá river is part of the largest community-based conservation programme in the Brazilian Amazon. Beaches are guarded on a shoestring budget by local communities carrying out round-the-clock beach surveillance throughout the five-month turtle breeding season.

Prof Carlos Peres, from UEA’s School of Environmental Sciences and a senior author on the study, said: “This study clearly demonstrates the effectiveness of empowering local management action by stakeholders who have the largest stake and a 24/7 presence at key conservation sites. The beaches protected by local communities represent noisy islands of high biodiversity, surrounded by lifeless unprotected beaches, which are invariably empty and silent.”

Excerpts from Amazon turtle populations recovering well thanks to local action, Nov. 3, 2018

The Water Barons of Australia

Australia has one of the world’s most sophisticated water-trading systems, and officials in other water-challenged places—notably California and China—are drawing on its experience to manage what the World Bank has called world’s “most precious resource.”  The system here, set up after a catastrophic drought in the 2000s saw the country’s most important river system almost run dry, aims to make sure each gallon of river water goes to higher-value activities.

But the return of severe drought to an area of eastern Australia more than twice the size of Texas is testing the system…Putting a price on water is politically unacceptable in many countries, where access to lakes and rivers is considered a basic right and water is often allocated under administrative rules instead of by markets.

Many water markets that do exist only allow landowners to buy and sell water rights. Australia since 2007 has allowed anyone to trade water parcels, putting supply under the influence of market forces in a system now valued at about $21 billion. Water may be freely bought and sold by irrigators, farmers, water brokers or investors through four exchanges—H2OX, Waterfind, Water Exchange and Ruralco—which allow real-time pricing…

As Australia rewrote the rules of its water market over the last decade to deal with its own drought crises, many farmers chose to sell their water licenses and rely on one-off purchases to keep farming.  The tactic worked until winter rains failed to arrive this year, turning fertile areas into dust bowls. Where a megaliter of water in June last year, before the drought took hold, cost around 3,000 Australian dollars (U.S. $2,166), the price is now closer to A$5,000, according to Aither Water, an advisory firm. The high cost has left smaller farmers praying for rain…

Australia’s drought is splitting agriculture-producing regions into those who have water and those who don’t.  Large investors—including Canadian and U.S. funds—bought high-price water licenses to set up agribusiness ventures in profitable almonds, cotton and citrus, with an eye to growing Asian markets. Others have set up dedicated water investment funds, with prices at the highest levels seen since the drought last decade.

In a country where boom-and-bust cycles, through drought and flood, have historically made water a political flashpoint, some rural Australian lawmakers and farmers want the government to divert water to help parched farms…In August 2018, Victoria state auctioned 20 gigaliters of water that had been earmarked for the environment, putting it on the market for dairy and fruit regions around Cohuna…Some water traders and environmentalists criticized the move as political interference—and said it risked undermining the water market by giving priority to farmers and disrupting forward trades and planning by other irrigators….Euan Friday, a water manager for farm and water investment company Kilter Rural, said the market is doing what it is supposed to do, and warned that the country’s fragile rivers—much smaller than the major rivers of North America—would be facing a dire situation without it. Supported by Australian pension funds, Kilter Rural has invested $130 million in buying water rights and redeveloping farmland.

Excerpt from Australia Model Water Market Struggles with Drought, WSJ, Nov. 8, 2018

Peruvian Amazon: Oil Pollution & Human Rights

On September 15, 2018 indigenous federations from the Amazonian Loreto region of northern Peru scored a small victory in the fight for community rights. Representatives from four federations signed an agreement with the Peruvian government and the state-owned enterprise PetroPerú that acknowledges prior consultation as part of the new contracting process for petroleum Block 192. Under the new agreement, Block 192 will undergo a community consultation process before PetroPerú awards a new contract for operating the oil field…

Under the formal resolution with Prime Minister César Villanueva, the Ministry of Energy and Mining, and PetroPerú, the government will complete the community consultation for Block 192 between December 2018 and March 2019.

Extending across the Tigre, Corrientes, Pastaza and Marañón river basins in Peru’s remote Loreto province, Block 192 is the largest-yielding oil field in Peru, accounting for 17 percent of the country’s production. The government plans to continue production of oil at the block for another 30 years, adding to the almost 50 years of oil activity in the region. The oil field is currently operated by Canadian-based Frontera Energy, whose contract with PetroPerú is set to expire in September 2019.

American-based Occidental Petroleum discovered oil in the region in 1972 and a succession of companies, including the Dutch-Argentinian conglomerate Pluspetrol, left Block 192 (previously Block 1-AB) heavily polluted. While Peru’s Agency for Environmental Assessment and Enforcement fined Pluspetrol for violations, the Peruvian government remains in a protracted legal fight with the oil giant. A majority of the fines are outstanding and Pluspetrol denies any wrongdoing, despite settling with a local community in 2015.

For over 40 years, the indigenous Kichwa, Quechua, Achuar, and Urarina peoples who live near the oil field have been exposed to salts, heavy metals and hydrocarbons. According to a 2018 toxicology study by Peru’s National Center for Occupational Health and Environmental Protection for Health, over half of the indigenous residents in the region’s four basins have blood lead levels that surpass international recommended limits. A third have levels of arsenic and mercury above the levels recommended by Peru’s Ministry of Health…

The actual cost of cleaning up Block 192, along with neighboring Block 8, would approach $1 billion. To make matters more challenging, the $15 million fund of Peruvian government is almost exhausted..”

Excepts from Andrew Bogrand, Righting the many wrongs at Peru’s polluted oil Block 192, Nov. 2, 2018

Cryopreservation of Endangered Species

In paper in 2018 in Nature Plants, researchers at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, detail for the first time the scale of threatened species that are unable to be conserved in seed banks. The paper reveals that when looking at threatened species, 36 per cent of ‘critically endangered species produce recalcitrant seeds . This means they can’t tolerate the drying process and therefore cannot be frozen, the key process they need to go through to be safely ‘banked’.

In the paper, Kew scientist Dr. John Dickie, former Kew scientist Dr. Sarah Wyse, and former Director of Science at Kew Prof. Kathy Willis, found that other threatened categories and global tree species list also contain high proportions of species that are unbankable including 35% of ‘vulnerable’ species, 27% of ‘endangered’ species and 33% of all tree species.

Among these species are important UK heritage trees such as oaks, horse chestnuts and sweet chestnuts, as well as worldwide food staples like avocado, cacao, and mango. This latest research reveals that the scale of plants unable to be conserved in seed banks is much higher for threatened species. The issue is particularly severe for tree species, especially those in tropical moist forests where a half of the canopy tree species can be unsuitable for banking…

Currently, seed banking is the most commonly practiced way of conserving plantsoutside of their natural habitats. Seed banking works as an ‘insurance policy’ against the extinction of plants in the world—especially for those that are rare, endemic and economically important—so that they can be protected and utilised for the future.

[The scientists proposed]cryopreservation—a form of preservation using liquid nitrogen which offers a potential long-term storage solution for recalcitrant seeds. In seed banks, seeds are dried and frozen at -20°C whereas cryopreservation involves removing the embryo from the seed and then using liquid nitrogen to freeze it at a much colder temperature of -196°C…As well as allowing ‘unbankable’ species to be stored, cryopreservation also helps to extend the lifespans of orthodox seeds that otherwise have storage lives that are too short at -20°C.

Excerpts from Seed banking not an option for over a third of threatened species
November 2, 2018, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Fishing in the Arctic: Banned

The Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean (CAO) in Ilulissat, Greenland was adopted on October 3, 2018.  The historic agreement represents a collaborative and precautionary approach by ten countries to the management of high seas fish stocks in the Central Arctic Ocean. The agreement covers approximately 2.8 million square kilometers, an area roughly the size of the Mediterranean Sea.

Ice has traditionally covered the high seas of the central Arctic Ocean year-round. Recently, the melting of Arctic sea ice has left large areas of the high seas uncovered for much of the year. The Agreement bars unregulated fishing in the high seas of the central Arctic Ocean for 16 years and establishes a joint program of scientific research and monitoring to gain a better understanding of Arctic Ocean ecosystems. It also authorizes vessels to conduct commercial fishing in the CAO only after international mechanisms are in place to manage any such fishing. This effort marks the first time an international agreement of this magnitude has been proactively reached before any commercial fishing has taken place in a high seas area.

Signatories include the United States, Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark, the European Union, Iceland, Japan, the Republic of Korea, the Kingdom of Norway, the People’s Republic of China, and the Russian Federation.

Excerpt from U.S. Signs Agreement to Prevent Unregulated Commercial Fishing on the High Seas of the Central Arctic Ocean, NOAA Press Release, Oct. 3, 2018

Stop it: Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing

Large ships are supposed, by international agreement, to be fitted with what is known as the Automatic Identification System (AIS), and to keep it on all the time. Arrangements for small ones vary from country to country, but most require some sort of beacon to be fitted to craft sailing in their waters.

The beacons’ main purpose is to avoid collisions. But monitoring them can also give away who is fishing nefariously, if you develop the software to sift through masses of location data looking for patterns. Beacon-watching has also helped identify hot spots for the transfer of catches at sea from IUU fishing boats to refrigerated cargo vessels, a practice which conceals the origin of a catch. Transshipment hotspots have been identified in this way off west Africa and Russia, and in the tropical Pacific. But beacons can be (and are) switched off.

Global Fishing Watch—a collaboration between Oceana, a conservation group, Google, a division of Alphabet, and Sky Truth, a charity that uses remote sensing to monitor environmental problems—has turned to America’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for help. NOAA has long collected satellite data on clouds. These are available to outsiders at no cost. The agency’s Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite consists of two sensors, each mounted on a different satellite. Between them, these sensors photograph the entire planet every 24 hours. Though their target is cloud cover, they can also see small, bright sources of light. Some of these give away the activities of fishermen. Many marine species are attracted to light, so it is common practice to shine floodlights into the water.

To find those illegals who do not so conveniently illuminate their activities Global Fishing Watch turns to satellite radar data. These are gathered mainly by private companies for sale to customers who want to do things like monitor the logging of forests. Global Fishing Watch, too, has to pay for them. Radar data have proved themselves useful, though. In 2016, for example, radar turned up a fleet of ships off the coast of Chile that had their AIS turned off…. The European Union’s Sentinel satellites now provide radar data free of charge. Global Fishing Watch is working on an automated vessel-detection system that uses these data.

Better detection would certainly help limit IUU fishing. The Port State Measures Agreement, introduced in 2016 and now ratified by 55 countries, is supposed to stop vessels engaged in such fishing from landing their catches. But ports can act against a vessel only if they know what it has been up to. The technology being developed by Global Fishing Watch makes it possible to report offenders quickly, thus giving port authorities time to act.

The future, moreover, looks brighter still—or dimmer, if you are an illicit fisherman. CubeSats, satellites the size of a loaf of bread, are lowering the cost of Earth observation.  making it feasible to track all boats continuously.

Excerpts from Netting the Crooks: Curbing Illegal Fishing, Economist,  Sept. 8, 2018

Who Owns the Genes in the Seas?

It’s an eye-catching statistic: A single company, the multinational chemical giant BASF, owns nearly half of the patents issued on 13,000 DNA sequences from marine organisms. That number is now helping fuel high-stakes global negotiations on a contentious question: how to fairly regulate the growing exploitation of genes collected in the open ocean, beyond any nation’s jurisdiction.

The negotiations that took place at the UN in September 2018 aim, inter alia, to replace today’s free-for-all scramble for marine genetic resources with a more orderly and perhaps more just regime.  Many developed nations and industry groups are adamant that any new rules should not complicate efforts to discover and patent marine genes that may help create better chemicals, cosmetics, and crops. But many developing nations want rules that will ensure they, too, share in any benefits. Scientists are also watching. A regulatory regime that is too burdensome could have “a negative impact” on scientists engaged in “noncommercial ocean research,” warns Robert Blasiak, a marine policy specialist at the Stockholm Resilience Centre.  It is not the first time nations have wrangled over how to share genetic resources. Under another U.N. pact, the 2010 Nagoya Protocol, 105 countries have agreed to rules to prevent so-called biopiracy: the removal of biological resources—such as plant or animal DNA—from a nation’s habitats without proper permission or compensation.

Those rules don’t apply in international waters, which begin 200 nautical miles from shore and are attracting growing interest from researchers and companies searching for valuable genes. The first patent on DNA from a marine organism was granted in 1988 for a sequence from the European eel, which spends part of its life in freshwater. Since then, more than 300 companies, universities, and others have laid claim to sequences from 862 marine species, a team led by Blasiak reported in June in Science Advances. Extremophiles have been especially prized. Genes from worms found in deep-sea hydrothermal vents, for example, encode polymers used in cosmetics. And BASF has patented other worm DNA that the company believes could help improve crop yields. The conglomerate, based in Ludwigshafen, Germany, says it found most of its 5700 sequences in public databases…

It may take years for nations to agree on a marine biodiversity treaty; [A]n “ideological divide” between developing and developed countries has, so far, “led to stalemate” on how to handle marine genetic resources, says Harriet Harden-Davies, a policy expert at the University of Wollongong in Australia.

Most developing nations want to expand the “common heritage” philosophy embedded in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which declares that resources found on or under the seabed, such as minerals, are the “common heritage of mankind.” Applying that principle to genetic resources would promote “solidarity in the preservation and conservation of a good we all share,” South Africa’s negotiating team said in a recent statement. Under such an approach, those who profit from marine genes could, for example, pay into a global fund that would be used to compensate other nations for the use of shared resources, possibly supporting scientific training or conservation.

But developed nations including the United States, Russia, and Japan oppose extending the “common heritage” language, fearing burdensome and unworkable regulations. They argue access to high seas genes should be guaranteed to all nations under the principle of the “freedom of the high seas,” also enshrined in the Law of the Sea. That approach essentially amounts to finders keepers, although countries traditionally have balanced unfettered access with other principles, such as the value of conservation, in developing rules for shipping, fishing, and research in international waters.

The European Union and other parties want to sidestep the debate and seek a middle ground. One influential proposal would allow nations to prospect for high seas genes, but require that they publish the sequences they uncover. Companies could also choose to keep sequences private temporarily, in order to be able to patent them, if they contribute to an international fund that would support marine research by poorer nations. “Researchers all around the world should be put all on a level playing field,” says Arianna Broggiato, a Brussels-based legal adviser for the consultancy eCoast, who co-authored a paper on the concept this year in The International Journal of Marine and Coastal Law.

Exceprts from Eli Kintisch U.N. tackles gene prospecting on the high seas, Science, Sept. 7, 2018

The Game-Changers: oil, gas and geothermal

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has decided to degazette parts of two UNESCO World Heritage Sites to allow for oil drilling. Environmentalists have reacted sharply to the decision to open up Virunga and Salonga national parks – a move that is likely to jeopardise a regional treaty on the protection of Africa’s most biodiverse wildlife habitat and the endangered mountain gorilla…The two national parks are home to mountain gorillas, bonobos and other rare species. Salonga covers 33 350 km2 (3,350,000 ha)of the Congo Basin, the world’s second largest rainforest, and contains bonobos, forest elephants, dwarf chimpanzees and Congo peacocks….

On 7 April, 2018, a council of ministers from the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda agreed to ratify the Treaty on the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration (GVTC) on Wildlife Conservation and Tourism Development. The inaugural ministerial meeting set the deadline for September 2018 to finalise the national processes needed to ratify the treaty.

The Virunga National Park (790,000 ha, 7 900 km2)is part of the 13 800 km2 (1 3800 00 ha) Greater Virunga Landscape, which straddles the eastern DRC, north-western Rwanda and south-western Uganda.  The area boasts three UNESCO World Heritage Sites – Virunga, Rwenzori Mountains National Park and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. It also boasts a Ramsar Site (Lake George and Lake Edward) and a Man and Biosphere Reserve (in Queen Elizabeth National Park). It is the most species-rich landscape in the Albertine Rift – home to more vertebrate species and more endemic and endangered species than any other region in Africa.

According to the Greater Virunga Landscape 2016 annual report, the number of elephant carcasses recorded in 2016 was half the yearly average for the preceding five years. The report also mentions a high rate of prosecution and seizures. It cites a case study on Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park where 282 suspects involved in poaching were prosecuted, with over 230 sentenced….The GVTC has also helped to ease tensions between the countries by providing a platform where their military forces can collaborate in a transparent way. ..

Armed groups have reportedly killed more than 130 rangers in the park since 1996. Militias often kill animals such as elephants, hippos and buffaloes in the park for both meat and ivory. Wildlife products are then trafficked from the DRC through Uganda or Rwanda. The profits fund the armed groups’ operations.

Over 80% of the Greater Virunga Landscape is covered by oil concessions and this makes it a target for state resource exploitation purely for economic gain.


2015: Until recently, in GVL, extraction of highly valued minerals such as gold and coltan, were largely artisanal. The recent discovery of oil, gas and geothermal potential, however, is a game-changer. Countries are now moving ahead in the exploration and production of oil and gas, which if not properly managed, is likely to result in major negative environmental (and social) changes. Extractive industries are managed under each GVL partner state policy guidelines and legislation. Concessions for these industries cover the whole of the GVL, including the World Heritage Sites as well as national protected areas . Since 2006, Uganda discovered commercial quantities of oil in the Albertine Graben and production in Murchison will begin within the next few years. The effect of the extractive industries, similar to and contributing to that of the increase in urbanization is the increased demand for bush meat, timber and fuel wood from the GVL.

Excertps from Duncan E Omondi Gumba, DRC prioritises oil over conservation, ISS Africa,  July 11, 2018//GREATER VIRUNGA LANDSCAPE
ANNUAL CONSERVATION STATUS REPORT 2015

 

A Gasfield and the Cows Next to it

High levels of a radioactive material and other contaminants have been found in water from a West Australian fracking site* but operators say it could be diluted and fed to beef cattle.  The revelations illustrate the potential risks associated with the contentious gas extraction process known as fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, as the Turnbull government pressures states to ease restrictions on the industry and develop their gas reserves.

The findings were contained in a report by oil and gas company Buru Energy that has not been made public. It shows the company also plans to reinject wastewater underground – a practice that has brought on seismic events when used in the United States.

Buru Energy has been exploring the potentially vast “tight gas” resources of the Kimberly region’s Canning Basin. The work was suspended when the WA government last year introduced a fracking moratorium, subject to the findings of a scientific inquiry.

In a submission to the inquiry obtained by the Lock the Gate Alliance, Buru Energy said a “relatively high concentration” of Radium-228…The samples exceeded drinking water guidelines for radionuclides. However Buru Energy said samples collected from retention ponds were below guideline levels and the water posed “no risk to humans or animals”.  Water monitoring also detected elevated levels of the chemical elements barium, boron and chloride….Buru Energy said while the water was not suitable for human consumption, the “reuse of flowback water for beef cattle may also be considered”.  The water did not meet stockwater guidelines but this could be addressed “through dilution with bore water”.

The company’s development in the Yulleroo area of the basin could lead to 80 wells operating over 20 years….The company insists its fracking fluids are non-toxic and to illustrate its safety, executive chairman Eric Streitberg drank the fluid at the company’s 2016 annual general meeting.

Excerpt from  Nicole Hasham Radioactive water reignites concerns over fracking for gas, Sydney Morning Herald, June 24, 2018

*Fracking, which involves injecting water mixed with chemicals and sand deep underground in order to fracture rock and release oil and gas, generates large amounts of wastewater. … In some cases, improper handling of this waste water has resulted in the release of radioactive fracking waste that has contaminated streams and rivers, Science Magazine, Apr 9, 2015

For Voices against Fracking in WA, Dont Frack WA

A Slow-Burning Tragedy

Charcoal is one of the biggest informal businesses in Africa. It is the fuel of choice for the continent’s fast-growing urban poor, who, in the absence of electricity or gas, use it to cook and heat water. According to the UN, Africa accounted for three-fifths of the world’s production in 2012—and this is the only region where the business is growing. It is, however, a slow-burning environmental disaster.

In Nyakweri forest, Kenya, the trees are ancient and rare. Samwel Naikada, a local activist, points at a blackened stump in a clearing cut by burners. It is perhaps 400 years old, he says. The effect of burning trees spreads far. During the dry season, the forest is a refuge for amorous elephants who come in from the plains nearby to breed. The trees store water, which is useful in such a parched region. It not only keeps the Mara river flowing—a draw for the tourists who provide most of the county government’s revenue. It also allows the Masai people to graze their cows and grow crops. “You cannot separate the Masai Mara and this forest,” says Mr Naikada….

Nyakweri is hardly the only forest at risk. The Mau forest, Kenya’s largest, which lies farther north in the Rift Valley, has also been hit by illegal logging. Protests against charcoal traders (!) broke out earlier this year, after rivers that usually flow throughout the dry season started to run dry. In late February a trader’s car was reportedly burned in Mwingi, in central Kenya, by a group of youngsters who demanded to see the trader’s permits. At the end of February 2018 the government announced an emergency 90-day ban on all logging, driving up retail prices of charcoal by 500%, to as much as 5,000 shillings a bag in some cities.

The problems caused by the charcoal trade have spread beyond Kenya. In southern Somalia, al-Shabab, a jihadist group, funds itself partly through the taxes it levies on the sale of charcoal (sometimes with the help of Kenyan soldiers, who take bribes for allowing the shipments out of a Somali port that Kenya controls). The logging also adds to desertification, which, in turn, causes conflict across the Sahel, an arid belt below the Sahara. It forces nomadic herders to range farther south with their animals, where they often clash with farmers over the most fertile land.

In the power vacuum of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, rampant charcoal logging has destroyed huge swathes of Virunga National Park. That threatens the rare gorillas which tourists currently pay as much as $400 a day to view, even as it fuels the conflict.

In theory, charcoal burning need not be so destructive. In Kenya the burners are meant to get a licence. To do so, they have to show they are replacing the trees they are cutting down and that they are using modern kilns that convert the trees efficiently into fuel. But, admits Clement Ngoriareng, an official at the Kenya Forest Service (KFS), the rules are laxly enforced. Some suspect that powerful politicians stymie efforts to police burners.

Excerpts from A Very Black Market: Illegal Charcoal, Economist, Mar. 31, 2018

Open-Ocean Farming

Ocean Farm 1 is the first of six experimental fish farms ordered by SalMar, a Norwegian firm, at a total cost of $300 million. InnovaSea, an American firm, makes large open-ocean aquaculture nets called SeaStations, which are currently used off the coast of Panama and Hawaii, but Ocean Farm 1 is “by far the largest open-ocean fish farm in the world,” says Thor Hukkelas, who leads research and development on aquaculture at Kongsberg Maritime, a Norwegian engineering company. Mr Hukkelas’s team provided Ocean Farm 1’s sensor system: 12 echo sounders mounted on the bottom of the frame, high-definition cameras dangled into the water at different depths, oxygen sensors and movable, submerged feeding tubes.

Fish farming plays an increasingly central role in the provision of sufficient amounts of protein to Earth’s population. People eat more fish globally than beef, and farmed fish account for almost half of that amount  Many wild fisheries are already at or past their sustainable capacity, so efforts to make fish farming more productive are vital.

Ocean Farm 1 aims to automate what is an expensive and difficult business, and to solve two key problems that occur in near-shore aquaculture: that there is not enough space and that it is too polluting. The excrement from millions of salmon can easily foul up Norway’s fjords, and their shallow, relatively still water is a breeding ground for sea lice. In the open ocean the water is deeper and better oxygenated. The currents are stronger and so better able to sweep away excrement.

Near-shore farms normally spread feed on the water’s surface and allow it to sink, but Ocean Farm 1 has 16 valves at varying depths, through which feed can be pushed. By putting it farther down in the cage it is able to keep the salmon in deeper water. The salmon are fine with this. The sea lice, which like the shallows, are not.

All of this means the number of fish can be increased. The Norwegian government wants to triple its aquaculture production by 2030 and quintuple it by 2050. “Scaling up of traditional aquaculture is not going to reach these high-growth ambitions,” says Mr Hukkelas.

Kongsberg is gathering data from all the sensors on the farm to build a machine-learning model, called SimSalma, which learns the behaviour of the salmon in order to optimise their feeding. Currently, human operators on the structure decide when and where to feed the fish by examining the data. By 2019 Kongsberg plans to have automated this, pushing feed at optimum times and places and reducing human involvement. The success and expansion of such projects would represent a major step towards maintaining global fish stocks.

Net gains: Open-ocean fish farming is becoming easier, Economist,  Mar. 10, 2018.

An Earth Bank of Codes: who owns what in the biological world

A project with the scale and sweep of the original Human Genome Project…should be to gather DNA sequences from specimens of all complex life on Earth. They decided to call it the Earth BioGenome Project (EBP).

At around the same time as this meeting, a Peruvian entrepreneur living in São Paulo, Brazil, was formulating an audacious plan of his own. Juan Carlos Castilla Rubio wanted to shift the economy of the Amazon basin away from industries such as mining, logging and ranching, and towards one based on exploiting the region’s living organisms and the biological information they embody. At least twice in the past—with the businesses of rubber-tree plantations, and of blood-pressure drugs called ACE inhibitors, which are derived from snake venom—Amazonian organisms have helped create industries worth billions of dollars. ….

For the shift he had in mind to happen, though, he reasoned that both those who live in the Amazon basin and those who govern it would have to share in the profits of this putative new economy. And one part of ensuring this happened would be to devise a way to stop a repetition of what occurred with rubber and ACE inhibitors—namely, their appropriation by foreign firms, without royalties or tax revenues accruing to the locals.

Such thinking is not unique to Mr Castilla. An international agreement called the Nagoya protocol already gives legal rights to the country of origin of exploited biological material. What is unique, or at least unusual, about Mr Castilla’s approach, though, is that he also understands how regulations intended to enforce such rights can get in the way of the research needed to turn knowledge into profit. To that end he has been putting his mind to the question of how to create an open library of the Amazon’s biological data (particularly DNA sequences) in a way that can also track who does what with those data, and automatically distribute part of any commercial value that results from such activities to the country of origin. He calls his idea the Amazon Bank of Codes.

Now, under the auspices of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting at Davos, a Swiss ski resort, these two ideas have come together. On January 23, 2018 it was announced that the EBP will help collect the data to be stored in the code bank. The EBP’s stated goal is to sequence, within a decade, the genomes of all 1.5m known species of eukaryotes. ..That is an ambitious timetable. The first part would require deciphering more than eight genomes a day; the second almost 140; the third, about 1,000. For comparison, the number of eukaryotic genomes sequenced so far is about 2,500…

Big sequencing centres like BGI in China, the Rockefeller University’s Genomic Resource Centre in America, and the Sanger Institute in Britain, as well as a host of smaller operations, are all eager for their share of this pot. For the later, cruder, stages of the project Complete Genomics, a Californian startup bought by BGI, thinks it can bring the cost of a rough-and-ready sequence down to $100. A hand-held sequencer made by Oxford Nanopore, a British company, may be able to match that and also make the technology portable…..It is an effort in danger of running into the Nagoya protocol. Permission will have to be sought from every government whose territory is sampled. That will be a bureaucratic nightmare. Indeed, John Kress of the Smithsonian, another of the EBP’s founders, says many previous sequencing ventures have foundered on the rock of such permission. And that is why those running the EBP are so keen to recruit Mr Castilla and his code bank.

The idea of the code bank is to build a database of biological information using a blockchain. Though blockchains are best known as the technology that underpins bitcoin and other crypto-currencies, they have other uses. In particular, they can be employed to create “smart contracts” that monitor and execute themselves. To obtain access to Mr Castilla’s code bank would mean entering into such a contract, which would track how the knowledge thus tapped was subsequently used. If such use was commercial, a payment would be transferred automatically to the designated owners of the downloaded data. Mr Castilla hopes for a proof-of-principle demonstration of his platform to be ready within a few months.

In theory, smart contracts of this sort would give governments wary of biopiracy peace of mind, while also encouraging people to experiment with the data. And genomic data are, in Mr Castilla’s vision, just the start. He sees the Amazon Bank of Codes eventually encompassing all manner of biological compounds—snake venoms of the sort used to create ACE inhibitors, for example—or even behavioural characteristics like the congestion-free movement of army-ant colonies, which has inspired algorithms for co-ordinating fleets of self-driving cars. His eventual goal is to venture beyond the Amazon itself, and combine his planned repository with similar ones in other parts of the world, creating an Earth Bank of Codes.

[I]f the EBP succeeds, be able to use the evolutionary connections between genomes to devise a definitive version of the tree of eukaryotic life. That would offer biologists what the periodic table offers chemists, namely a clear framework within which to operate. Mr Castilla, for his part, would have rewritten the rules of international trade by bringing the raw material of biotechnology into an orderly pattern of ownership. If, as many suspect, biology proves to be to future industries what physics and chemistry have been to industries past, that would be a feat of lasting value.

Excerpts from Genomics, Sequencing the World, Economist, Jan. 27, 2018

Islands of Paradise, Sewage and Garbage

Cesspools—holes in the ground where untreated human waste is deposited—have become a crisis in Hawaii, threatening the state’s drinking water, its coral reefs and the famous beaches that are the lifeblood of its tourist economy.  Sewage from cesspools is seeping into some of Hawaii’s ocean waters, where it has been blamed for infections suffered by surfers and snorkelers. It is also entering the drinking water in part of the state, pushing nitrate levels close to the legal limit.

Hawaii has 88,000 cesspools across its eight major islands, more than any other state. Collectively, they deposit 53 million gallons of raw sewage into the ground every day, according to the state health department. More than 90% of the state’s drinking water comes from groundwater wells…

Replacing all of the state’s cesspools with alternate sewage systems would cost at least $1.75 billion, according to the health department…At one groundwater well, nitrate levels are already at 8.7 milligrams a liter; the legal limit is 10, and the Department of Health estimated that some parts of the aquifer are already over that limit. Environmentalists say they are worried about the potential effect of the water on infants, who can be killed by high levels on nitrates, which are chemicals found in fertilizer and sewage.

Many bathrooms in homes outside Honolulu still pump sewage into nearby holes in the ground.  Yet, some residents resist plans to replace cesspools, worried about expense. In January 2018, Upcountry Maui residents overwhelmed a Department of Public Health meeting, complaining about potential costs.

Excerpt from Hawaii’s Big Headache: Cesspools, Wall Street Journal, Feb. 12, 2018

The Maritime Environment Protection Authority’s (MEPA) of Sri Lanka spent millions of rupees on coastal cleanups last year — a reflection of “spending public money for public waste,” as the MEPA’s General Manager and CEO, Dr. Terney Pradeep Kumara, puts it.

A large proportion of the problem is attributable to inland waste, he notes. “It is not merely what is dumped directly on the beaches, but all that flows through canals and rivers,” he says, pointing out that other triggers, including the fisheries and the tourism sector, are only secondary to inland waste which ends up on the coast. Added to the burden is the garbage which flows from India, Indonesia and Thailand, he says. The MEPA’s role in controlling pollution covers Sri Lanka’s 1640 km coastal belt and extends up to 200 nautical miles to the deep sea, the area, which, according to Dr. Pradeep Kumara, is eight times the size of Sri Lanka’s land area.

The garbage dumped in the coastal vegetation is contributing to the dengue problem…especially the fishing craft, both in use and abandoned, in which water is stagnated.”   Mitigating inland pollution is seen by MEPA authorities as the first step in realising cleaner beaches. They moot a site-specific garbage disposal system, as opposed to a ‘blanket system’. “What works for Colombo will not work for other areas,” says Dr. Pradeep Kumara.

Excerpt Sea of trash: Inland and overseas garbage washes up on Lanka’s beaches, Sunday Times (Sri Lanka), Feb. 11, 2018

The Arctic through China’s Eyes

China on  January 25, 2018 outlined its ambitions to extend President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative to the Arctic by developing shipping lanes opened up by global warming.  Releasing its first official Arctic policy white paper, China said it would encourage enterprises to build infrastructure and conduct commercial trial voyages, paving the way for Arctic shipping routes that would form a “Polar Silk Road”…China, despite being a non-Arctic state, is increasingly active in the polar region and became an observer member of the Arctic Council in 2013.

Among its increasing interests in the region is its major stake in Russia’s Yamal liquefied natural gas project which is expected to supply China with four million tonnes of LNG a year.

Shipping through the Northern Sea Route would shave almost 20 days off the regular time using the traditional route through the Suez Canal. COSCO Shipping has also previously sailed vessels through the Arctic’s northeast passage.

China’s increasing prominence in the region has prompted concerns from Arctic states over its long-term strategic objectives, including possible military deployment…The white paper said China also eyes development of oil, gas, mineral resources and other non-fossil energies, fishing and tourism in the region. China’s Belt and Road initiative aims to connect China to Europe, the Middle East and beyond via massive infrastructure projects across dozens of countries…

Excerpts from China unveils vision for ‘Polar Silk Road’ across Arctic, Reuters, Jan. 25, 2018

The Right to Drinkable Water and Uranium Mining in the USA

[T]he uranium mining industry in the United States is renewing a push into the areas adjacent to Navajo Nation, Utah: the Grand Canyon watershed to the west, where a new uranium mine is preparing to open, and the Bears Ears National Monument to the north.

The Trump administration is set to shrink Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent in February 2018, potentially opening more than a million acres to mining, drilling and other industrial activity….[T]here were more than 300 uranium mining claims inside the monument, according to data from Utah’s Bureau of Land Management (B.L.M.) office that was reviewed by The New York Times.  The vast majority of those claims fall neatly outside the new boundaries of Bears Ears set by the [Trump] administration. And an examination of local B.L.M. records, including those not yet entered into the agency’s land and mineral use authorizations database, shows that about a third of the claims are linked to Energy Fuels, a Canadian uranium producer. Energy Fuels also owns the Grand Canyon mine, where groundwater has already flooded the main shaft.

Energy Fuels, together with other mining groups, lobbied extensively for a reduction of Bears Ears, preparing maps that marked the areas it wanted removed from the monument and distributing them during a visit to the monument by Mr. Zinke, Energy Secretary,  in May 2017.

The Uranium Producers of America, an industry group, is pushing the Environmental Protection Agency to withdraw regulations proposed by the Obama administration to strengthen groundwater protections at uranium mines. Mining groups have also waged a six-year legal battle against a moratorium on new uranium mining on more than a million acres of land adjacent to the Grand Canyon…

Supporters of the mining say that a revival of domestic uranium production, which has declined by 90 percent since 1980 amid slumping prices and foreign competition, will make the United States a larger player in the global uranium market.  It would expand the country’s energy independence, they say, and give a lift to nuclear power, still a pillar of carbon-free power generation. Canada, Kazakhstan, Australia, Russia and a few other countries now supply most of America’s nuclear fuel.

The dwindling domestic market was thrust into the spotlight by the contentious 2010 decision under the Obama administrationthat allowed Russia’s nuclear agency to buy Uranium One, a company that has amassed production facilities in the United States. The Justice Department is examining allegations that donations to the Clinton Foundation were tied to that decision.

“If we consider nuclear a clean energy, if people are serious about that, domestic uranium has to be in the equation,” said Jon J. Indall, a lawyer for Uranium Producers of America. “But the proposed regulations would have had a devastating impact on our industry.” “Countries like Kazakhstan, they’re not under the same environmental standards. We want a level playing field.”…

In Sanders, Arizona, hundreds of people were exposed to potentially dangerous levels of uranium in their drinking water for years, until testing by a doctoral researcher at Northern Arizona University named Tommy Rock exposed the contamination.  “I was shocked,” Mr. Rock said. “I wasn’t expecting that reading at all.”

Mr. Rock and other scientists say they suspect a link to the 1979 breach of a wastewater pond at a uranium mill in Church Rock, N.M., now a Superfund site. That accident is considered the single largest release of radioactive material in American history, surpassing the crisis at Three Mile Island.

It wasn’t until 2003, however, that testing by state regulators picked up uranium levels in Sanders’s tap water. Still, the community was not told. Erin Jordan, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, said the department had urged the now-defunct local water company for years to address the contamination, but it had been up to that company to notify its customers….The town’s school district, whose wells were also contaminated with uranium, received little state or federal assistance. It shut off its water fountains and handed out bottled water to its 800 elementary and middle-school students.  “I still don’t trust the water,” said Shanon Sangster, who still sends her 10-year-old daughter, Shania, to school with bottled water. “It’s like we are all scarred by it, by the uranium.”

Excerpts from HIROKO TABUCHIJAN,  Uranium Miners Pushed Hard for a Comeback. They Got Their Wish,  NY Times, Jan. 13, 2018

Fish Poachers in Africa

In Sierra Leone nearly half the population does not have enough to eat, and fish make up most of what little protein people get. But the country’s once-plentiful shoals, combined with its weak government, have lured a flotilla of unscrupulous foreign trawlers to its waters. Most of the trawlers fly Chinese flags, though dozens also sail from South Korea, Italy, Guinea and Russia. Their combined catch is pushing Sierra Leone’s fisheries to the brink of collapse.

Sierra Leone is not alone in facing this crisis. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, 90% of the world’s fisheries are dangerously overexploited. The Africa Centre for Strategic Studies, a think-tank funded by America’s defence department, reckons that about a quarter of fish caught off Africa’s shores are taken illegally.

Excerpt from Poachers afloat: Why Sierra Leone is running out of fish, Economist, Dec. 16, 2017

Exploiting Chaos: water management in the Middle East

A water crisis rooted in wasteful irrigation, climate change and dam-building is imperiling [the wetlands of Iraq] again.

A weakened flow into the Tigris and Euphrates rivers means that salt water from the Persian Gulf can now seep upstream into the marshes. This, coupled with farming run-off that has boosted salinity,threatens wetland wildlife, vegetation and the local Marsh Arabs who have depended on them for millennia.  The problem is partly home-made. Iraq’s irrigation methods are often wasteful, and the equipment tends to be rickety. Many farmers rely on thirsty crops such as rice. Politicians have in the past secured extra water for their upstream districts at the marshes’ expense. Reform-minded technocrats are forced to contend with deep-rooted corruption, the distracting and costly fight against the Islamic State (IS) group, and low oil prices, all of which have drained state coffers.

But other problems lie beyond Iraq’s control. For decades dams built in Syria, Turkey and Iran have swallowed up the waters of the Tigris, Euphrates and other rivers feeding the marshes. New dams due to open in Turkey, including the 1,200-megawatt Ilisu Dam, could further restrict the flow of the Tigris.

Talks over these dams have been inconclusive, partly because the Syrian and Iraqi states barely function and partly because IS has controlled swathes of the Euphrates. Turkey may be tempted to exploit its upstream position.

Climate change is taking its toll, too. Last summer temperatures of about 54°C were recorded in southern Iraq, among the hottest ever.

If only Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey would share their waters as amicably as the Danube countries do… Dam levels should be calibrated during wet and dry years to ensure steadier flows. Iraqi officials might also ponder novel solutions, he says, such as renting storage at the Ilisu Dam for use when needed. Yet stronger countries have exploited their advantages rather than seek compromise

Excerpts from Iraq’s Wetlands: Drying Up Again,  Economist,  Sept. 16, 2017

The Luxury of Swimmable Waters

Data published in 2013 suggested that it was not safe for people to submerge themselves in 60% of New Zealand’s waterways. “We used to swim in these rivers,” says Sam Mahon, the artist. “Now they’ve turned to crap… [T]he real villains behind New Zealand’s deteriorating water quality are still at large…intensive dairy farms…

The first concern is bovine urine, which is rich in nitrogen. Nitrogen can cause toxic algae to grow when it leaches into water. Nitrogen fertiliser, used to increase fodder yields so that more cows can be raised on less land, exacerbates the problem….

At many of the sites where the government tests the groundwater it contains too much nitrate to be safe to drink—a particular problem in New Zealand, since water in much of the country has long been considered clean enough that it is used as drinking water with only minimal treatment. In Canterbury, one of the most polluted areas, expectant mothers are told to test tap water to avoid “blue baby syndrome”, a potentially fatal ailment thought to be caused by nitrates. The poisonous blooms have killed dogs.

An even greater concern for human health comes from cow dung, which contains nasty bacteria such as E.coli….And then there is the damage to native flora and fauna. The algal blooms suck the oxygen from rivers. Sediment washed from farmland can also choke the life out of streams. Almost three-quarters of native species of freshwater fish are under threat.

…One recent tally suggested that just 2,000 of the thirstiest dairies suck up as much water as 60m people would—equivalent to the population of London, New York, Tokyo, Los Angeles and Rio de Janeiro combined. …

Dairies are trying to clean up their act. Farmers have fenced off thousands of kilometres of rivers to prevent livestock from wading in. Some have planted trees along waterways to curb erosion; others remove animals from muddy fields during winter. Some parts of the country are using more sophisticated techniques: around Lake Taupo, the country’s biggest lake, farmers can buy and sell nitrogen allowances in a cap-and-trade scheme. A technique called “precision irrigation” may curb both water consumption and the leaching of nitrogen.

Earlier this year the National Party launched a plan to make 90% of rivers “swimmable” by 2040. Yet it ignored several recommendations of a forum of scientists and agrarians established to thrash out water policy….Environmentalists argue that the national dairy herd should be cut to prevent further damage…And pollutants moving through groundwater can take decades to emerge in lakes. The worst may still be to come.

Excerpts from New Zealand’s Water, Economist, Nov. 18, 2017

Jumping off the Edge into Ocean: Hydrazine

Europe’s space agency is defending plans to launch two satellites that would drop a rocket stage likely to contain highly toxic fuel in some of the most ecologically sensitive waters of the Canadian Arctic… North Water Polynya between Baffin Island and Greenland Inuit have said those plans treat seas…as a garbage dump.

On October 13, 2017, the European Space Agency plans to launch the Sentinel 5P satellite, an environmental probe designed to monitor trace gases in the atmosphere. A second launch of a similar satellite is planned for 2018.  The second stage of both rockets are expected to splash down in water that is part of Canada’s exclusive economic zone.  Both will use Soviet-era rockets fuelled by hydrazine. The fuel is a carcinogen and causes convulsions, nervous system damage, kidney and liver failure in humans.

Hvistendahl, representative of European Space Agency, said unused fuel will be destroyed before it reaches the ocean. Re-entry temperatures are much higher than hydrazine’s boiling point, he said.  “The structural parts lose their integrity and, by melting, the destruction of the stage occurs. Six kilometres above ground the propellant components have completely burnt up.”

Michael Byers, a Canadian academic who has just published research on the launch in a top Arctic journal, questioned those assurances.  “The ESA is making lots of assumptions about what happens to the residual (fuel) in these returning rocket stages,” he said Friday in an email. “Unless they have real science that proves their assumptions, they should not be taking chances with Inuit lives and the Arctic environment.”  In his paper, published in Polar Record from Cambridge University, Byers cites extensive evidence suggesting that instead of burning, hydrazine forms fine droplets that settle on the Earth below.  Byers quotes a UN report that found “the products of combustion and non-combusted remains of fuel and oxidants falling from the height of 20–100 kilometre spread and land over thousands of square kilometres.”The rocket stage could be carrying up to a tonne of unused hydrazine as it falls, the paper says.  It will drop into the North Water Polynya, an 85,000-square-kilometre ocean that is free of ice year-round. It shelters most of the world’s narwhal, as well as about 14,000 beluga whales and 1,500 walrus, bowhead whales, polar bears, seals and tens of millions of seabirds…

In his paper, Byers points out there have been 10 such launches dropping rocket stages into the North Water Polynya over the last 15 years.  Nearly every country in the world, including Russia, has stopped using hydrazine. He said Europe launched a very similar satellite earlier this year with a rocket using a much safer fuel.

Excerpts from European satellite splashdown in Canadian Arctic probably toxic, Canadian Press, Oct. 6, 2017.

Don’t Cut that Tree!

A revolutionary new approach to measuring changes in forest carbon density has helped scientists determine that the tropics now emit more carbon than they capture, countering their role as a net carbon “sink.”*

“These findings provide the world with a wakeup call on forests,” said scientist Alessandro Baccini, the report’s lead author….Forests are the only carbon capture and storage ‘technology’ we have in our grasp that is safe, proven, inexpensive, immediately available at scale, and capable of providing beneficial ripple effects—from regulating rainfall patterns to providing livelihoods to indigenous communities.”

Using 12 years (2003-2014) of satellite imagery, laser remote sensing technology and field measurements, Baccini and his team were able to capture losses in forest carbon from wholesale deforestation as well as from more difficult-to-measure fine-scale degradation and disturbance …from smallholder farmers removing individual trees for fuel wood. These losses can be relatively small in any one place, but added up across large areas they become considerable.

[T] he researchers discovered that tropics represent a net source of carbon to the atmosphere — about 425 teragrams of carbon annually – which is more than the annual emissions from all cars and trucks in the United States.

Excerpts from New approach to measuring forest carbon density shows tropics now emit more carbon than they capture, Woods Hole Research Institute Press Release, Sept. 28, 2017

*Tropical forests are a net carbon source based on aboveground measurements of gain and loss by A. Baccini et al., Science, Sept. 28, 2017

Salt Lakes of the World

 

Utah Great Salt Lake has shrunk to a depth of about 14 feet—nearly half its former average since it was settled by the Mormons 170 years ago. Under a controversial engineering plan, the lake would recede even further….State engineers want to siphon off some of the river water that flows into the lake and use it for the Salt Lake City area’s booming population. Proponents say the plan, which calls for lapping up a fifth of Bear River’s current unused flow, is essential for meeting the region’s needs.

But critics note that the diversion would cause the lake to drop by almost a foot, according to state estimates, eventually exposing 30 square miles of lake bed and potentially worsening the dust storms that regularly blanket the region and ruining a fragile wetlands habitat.

The debate echoes concerns heard in many other arid parts of the world. Salt lake ecology is especially delicate and requires a certain amount of fresh water to maintain a saline balance. Brine shrimp, for instance, could die off if the water becomes too salty.

In the Middle East, diversion of the Jordan and other rivers that feed the Dead Sea has shriveled the famous body of saltwater and its once robust tourism. The Aral Sea between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan has shrunk to about 10% of its original size after diversions.

Critics, including environmental groups and affected businesses, say that under the new diversion plan lake-dependent businesses such as brine shrimp fishing would suffer, as would farmers whose land could be inundated upstream if existing dams are raised to retain more water. In all, the lake accounts for an estimated $1.3 billion in annual economic output, according to Utah State University, much of it from the shrimping industry, as well as mineral extraction and tourism.

The plan would also destroy wetlands along the lake shoreline that provide food and habitat for an estimated eight million birds, said Zach Frankel, executive director of Utah Rivers Council, an environmental group opposed to the project.

But proponents say the diversion of up to 72 billion gallons of water—enough to meet the needs of a city of one million for a year—is needed to forestall anticipated shortages for one of the fastest-growing regions in the country….“If Utah continues to grow, it’s not a matter of if but when we are going to need more water,” said state Sen. Stuart Adams, the Republican majority whip, who sponsored a bill to begin funding the estimated $1.5 billion project.

Excerpt from Utah Searches for Water Solution, Wall Street Journal, Sept. 14, 2017

Dams on Nile River

Since Ethiopia announced its plan to build the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, it has inspired threats of sabotage from Egypt, which sits downstream and relies on the Nile for electricity, farming and drinking water. Egypt claims that it is entitled to a certain proportion of the Nile’s water based on colonial-era treaties….

By 2050 around a billion people will live in the countries through which the Nile and its tributaries flow. That alone will put enormous stress on the water supply. But according to a study by Mohamed Siam and Elfatih Eltahir of MIT, potential changes to the river’s flow, resulting from climate change, may add to the strain. Messrs Siam and Eltahir conclude that on current trends the annual flow could increase, on average, by up to 15%. That may seem like a good thing, but it could also grow more variable, by 50%. In other words, there would be more (and worse) floods and droughts.

There is, of course, uncertainty in the projections, not least because differing global climate models give different numbers. But the idea that the flow of the Nile is likely to become more variable is lent credibility, the authors argue, by the fact that trends over decades seem to agree with them, and by consideration of the effects of El Niños. 

More storage capacity will be needed to smooth out the Nile’s flow. But unlike Egypt’s large Aswan Dam, which was built with storage in mind, the new Ethiopian one is designed for electricity production. Once water starts gushing through its turbines, it is expected to produce over 6,000 megawatts of power. It is unclear, though, if the structure has the necessary flexibility to meet downstream demands in periods of prolonged drought.

The talks between the three countries, Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, seem to be glossing over the potential effects of climate change. “Nowhere in the world are two such large dams on the same river operated without close co-ordination,” says another study from MIT. But so far co-operation is in short supply. The latest round of talks has been postponed. Even the methodology of impact studies is cause for wrangling.

Excerpts from: Climate Change and the Nile: Flood and Famine, Economist, Aug. 5, 2017

Whale Wars and 2017 Armistice

Environmental activists are abandoning their annual anti-whaling campaign in the Southern Ocean near Antarctica, saying Japan’s threat to defend its fleet is too daunting.  Capt. Paul Watson, the founder of anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd, said Japan’s threat to dispatch its military was unprecedented.“For the first time ever, they have stated they may send their military to defend their illegal whaling activities,” Capt. Watson said in a statement Tuesday. “The Japanese whalers not only have all the resources and subsidies their government can provide, they also have the powerful political backing of a major economic superpower.”

The Japanese embassy in Canberra, Australia, didn’t immediately respond to Sea Shepherd’s announcement, but it previously accused the group of sabotage and “acts of violence which seriously endangered the safe navigation of vessels.”  Some of Sea Shepherd’s tactics include ramming whaling vessels and throwing stink bombs onto the decks of Japanese ships. In January 2010, one of Sea Shepherd’s boats sank after a collision with a whaling vessel.

The group’s decision to suspend its campaign after 12 years leaves Japan’s fleet free to resume whaling through the coming Antarctic summer without disruption. Japan’s whaling fleet reported in 2016 killing 333 minke whales, with plans to cull about 4,000 whales over the next 12 years under a quota set by the Institute of Cetacean Research in Tokyo.

The International Whaling Commission put in place a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986. The next year, Japan embarked on a cull that it said was in the name of science, not commerce. Japan says it has a right to monitor whales’ impact on the fishing industry, though it also claims they are an important part of its cultural and culinary heritage.

Activists say scientific whaling is aimed at circumventing the 1986 ban.Last month, Japan’s Parliament passed a series of laws allowing for the protection of commercial whaling fleets. The International Court of Justice ruled against Japan in a scientific-whaling case in 2014.  Australia’s government condemned Japan’s new whaling laws in July 2017 saying they weren’t consistent with the 2014 ruling. Tokyo has withdrawn from the court’s jurisdiction with regard to whaling cases…

Capt. Watson said Sea Shepherd would resume anti-whaling efforts in the future, not only against the Japanese, but also in opposition to Norwegian, Danish and Icelandic whaling. “This is what we have been doing for 40 years,” he said.

Excerpts from  Foes of Whaling End Campaign, Wall Street Journal,  Aug. 30, 2017

Lithium Resources and Markets

Lithium is a coveted commodity. Lithium-ion batteries store energy that powers mobile phones, electric cars and electricity grids (when attached to wind turbines and photovoltaic cells). Joe Lowry, an expert on the lightest metal, expects demand to nearly triple by 2025. Supply is lagging, which has pushed up the price. Annual contract prices for lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide doubled in 2017, according to Industrial Minerals, a journal. That is attracting investors to the “lithium triangle” that overlays Argentina, Bolivia and Chile .  The region holds 54% of the world’s “lithium resources”, an initial indication of potential supply before assessing proven reserves.

Chile dominated the world lithium markets for decades. The Atacama salt flat has the largest and highest-quality proven reserves. The desert’s blazing sun, scarce rainfall and mineral-rich brines make Chile’s production costs the world’s lowest. Allied to this is the region’s most benign investment climate. Chile is far ahead in rankings of ease of doing business, levels of corruption, and the quality of its bureaucracy and courts (see charts). Its lithium deposits are close to Antofagasta and other Chilean ports;

But growth has flattened, allowing Australia to threaten Chile’s position as the world’s top producer…Laws enacted in the 1970s and 1980s classify lithium as a “strategic” material on the ground that it can be used in future nuclear-fusion power plants. There is little prospect that Chile will soon build one of these, but controls on lithium production remain as a way of protecting the desert’s fragile ecosystem.

Just two companies, Chile’s SQM and Albemarle of the United States, are allowed to extract brine under leases that were signed in the 1980s. In addition, they are subject to quotas on the lithium they can produce from the brine, which also yields other minerals

Argentina: Under the constitution, provinces, not the federal government, own the country’s minerals. Mining firms had to find their way through a confusion of provincial rules and regulations. “It was like the Tower of Babel,” says Daniel Meilán, the country’s current mining secretary. I Argentina’s newish president, Mauricio Macri, has tried to unblock investment, including that in lithium….  The federal government is trying to harmonise provincial regulations. It has hammered out agreement on a standard royalty (3% of revenue, plus 1.5% to improve local infrastructure)…

These advances have started to unfreeze investment in lithium. In 2016 the sector attracted $1.5bn; production rose by nearly 60%……..Ending the metal’s strategic status and getting rid of quotas would make still more sense. So would improving Chile’s institutions and infrastructure.

Under the left-wing government led by President Evo Morales since 2006, Bolivia has pulled out of numerous bilateral investment treaties, denying investors access to international arbitration. His government has nationalised parts of the oil and gas industries, along with the biggest telecoms company and most of the electricity sector.  The government keeps an even tighter grip on lithium than it does on gas, its biggest export. YPFB, the state-owned natural-gas company, at least enters into joint ventures with private-sector firms. Since 2010 the right to extract lithium brine has been reserved for the state. Private firms can now do no more than gaze longingly upon the Uyuni salt flat near Potosí, the largest in the world…

Like Chile, Bolivia hopes to form partnerships with private firms to make value-added products, including batteries and electric cars, through a new lithium enterprise, Yacimientos de Litio Bolivianos. But the government’s insistence on keeping a controlling stake is discouraging potential investors. In 2016 Bolivia sold 25 tonnes of lithium carbonate to China, pocketing a princely $208,000.

The white gold rush: The lithium triangle, Economist, June 17, 2017

Policing the Amazon Jungle

The small town of Apui sits at the new frontline of Brazil’s fight against advancing deforestation…  The home of 21,000 people in southern Amazonas state was long protected by its remote location from illegal loggers, ranchers and farmers who clear the forest.  Now those who would destroy the jungle are moving in from bordering states, following the Transamazon Highway, which is little more than a red-dirt track in this part of the rainforest.

First come the loggers, who illegally extract valued lumber sold in far-off cities. The cattle ranchers follow, burning the forest to clear land and plant green pasture that rapidly grows in the tropical heat and rain. After the pasture is worn out, soy farmers arrive, planting grain on immense tracts of land…

Roughly 7,989 square kilometres (3,085 square miles) of forest were destroyed in 2016, a 29 percent increase from the previous year and up from a low of 4,571 square kilometers in 2012, according to the PRODES satellite monitoring system.

Then there are the fires.  Apui ranked first in the country for forest fires in the first week of August 2017, according to the ministry.

At their best the environmental agents can slow but not stop the destruction. They raid illegal logging camps, levy large fines that are rarely collected and confiscate chainsaws to temporarily impede the cutting.  Costa acknowledges that the roughly 1,300 environmental field agents who police a jungle area the size of western Europe have a difficult task, at the very least.

Excerpt from Brazil’s agents of the Amazon fighting loggers, fires to stop deforestation, Reuters, Aug. 20, 2017

The Fight for the California Aquifer

Deep beneath the desert east of Los Angeles is a Southern California treasure: a massive basin filled with fresh water.

The aquifer has spurred development of the popular resort towns in the Coachella Valley, such as Palm Springs, Palm Desert and Rancho Mirage. But it also lies underneath the reservation of a small Native American tribe that owns golf courses and casinos in the area.

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians say the drinking water is partly theirs, and wants a stake in how it is used by public utilities. A yearslong legal battle over the issue could end up being taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court this fall.  The high court’s action could affect groundwater rights across the arid West, where utilities now deliver the water to tribes as another customer, along with farmers, cities and businesses.

The 480-member tribe contends the local water agencies—the Desert Water Agency and Coachella Valley Water District—have mismanaged the groundwater by allowing too much to be pumped out and by replenishing the source with untreated water from the Colorado River that they consider subpar.  The water agencies, however, say the tribe appears to be making a water grab, potentially setting a dangerous precedent where control of a municipal resource is partially ceded from a public utility.

They also say the tribe, which has built two casino resorts and two 18-hole championship-caliber golf courses on its 31,500 acres, has little experience in managing water, and could potentially sell some of it.  “They’re in the money business,” said James Cioffi, board president of the Desert Water Agency. The tribe says its only interest is in preserving the quality of the water.

Agua Caliente in 2013 took its case to federal court, winning in the first round on the issue of whether it has federal reserved rights to groundwater. That ruling was upheld in March by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. The water agencies appealed to the Supreme Court, which is expected to decide whether to hear the case this fall….If it lets the lower court rulings stand, more tribes could seek groundwater rights—triggering more litigation….Other tribes have already filed friend-of-the-court briefs on behalf of Agua Caliente’s litigation, including the Spokane in Washington and Paiutes in Nevada.

Tribal rights over rivers and other surface water supplies are well established in the West, but less so when it comes to groundwater—one of the most important drinking water sources in many desert areas.

Excertp from In Palm Springs, a Fight Over Who Controls the Drinking Water, Wall Street Journal,  Aug. 2, 2017

Final Development Frontier in Nepal

While India, Pakistan and China have all developed massive hydropower plants along the Himalayan mountains, Nepal’s civil war and political instability scared off investment for decades.  Now, thanks to an inclusive peace process that allowed the country’s main rebel leader to be elected prime minister twice, the focus is shifting to Nepal. Hydropower projects worth billions of dollars are in progress, with geologists and investors scouring the landscape for more.

Government surveys show Nepal’s abundant water resources can feasibly yield hydropower equal to more than 40% of U.S. output, a 40-fold increase from today. Officials project almost a third more hydropower capacity will come online this year. More than 100 projects under construction—over 40 since last year—and others in development will yield at least a tenfold increase in the next decade to 10 gigawatts of power, they say.

Nepal is ramping up its development of hydroelectric power plants in the Himalayas, but building in the region can be risky work. Photo: Brian Sokol for The Wall Street Journal  “There’s such an energy shortage that any project you build will find a market,” said Allard Nooy, CEO of InfraCo Asia, a development body funded by the U.K., Swiss and Australian governments that is financing one hydro project and seeking to develop two more.

Still, power companies don’t face an easy ride.  Among the hurdles are natural ones: earthquakes, landslides and inland tsunamis from glacial lakes as warmer temperatures prompt ice melt. Two years ago a series of massive quakes killed 9,000 people and shattered the country.

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