Monthly Archives: May 2018

An Unforgettable Type of Pollution

May 2018: The environmental damage around the site of two Royal Dutch Shell oil spills in Nigeria a decade ago has worsened significantly after years of delay to cleanup efforts, according to a report that the oil giant has been accused of trying to shield from public view.  The spills from a ruptured Shell pipeline spewed thousands of barrels of oil over parts of the Bodo fishing community in the crude-rich Niger Delta. Although the company in 2015 reached an out-of-court settlement with the local community, admitting to liability and agreeing to pay £55 million, or around $80 million at the time, in compensation, controversy around the case has remained.

A United Nations body, in a 2011 report, found extensive environmental damage around Bodo. Four years later, an assessment to prepare the cleanup found soil contamination had worsened while cleanup efforts languished and illegal refining and oil theft added to pollution in the area, according to an academic paper published last month. That has left the community facing potentially toxic pollution and “catastrophic” damage to the environment, the paper said.  The 2015 analysis was commissioned by the Bodo Mediation Initiative, a consortium established to oversee the cleanup in the area. Shell is a member of the group along with local stakeholders.

At least one of the authors urged the findings to be widely distributed because they pointed to significant health risks to the local community. Kay Holtzmann, the cleanup project’s former director, said in a letter reviewed by the Journal that Shell had denied him permission to publish the study’s results in a scientific journal.

But the academic paper* said the site survey contained new facts. The average surface soil contamination in Bodo had tripled since the original U.N. probe,the paper said. Out of 32 samples taken from the top two inches of soil in the area around Bodo, only one was within Nigeria’s legally acceptable limit for oil contamination, the paper added.

Excerpts from Pollution Worsens Around Shell Oil Spills in Nigeria, Wall Street Journal, May 26, 2018.

*Sediment Hydrocarbons in Former Mangrove Areas, Southern Ogoniland, Eastern Niger Delta, Nigeria, Apr. 2018

The Unquenchable Thirst

South-to-North Water Transfer Project. image from wikipedia

Most of the drinking water consumed in Beijing has travelled 1,432km (895 miles), roughly the distance from New York to Orlando, Florida. Its journey begins in a remote and hilly part of central China at the Danjiangkou reservoir, on the bottom of which lies the drowned city of Junzhou. The water gushes north by canal and pipeline, crosses the Yellow river by burrowing under it, and arrives, 15 days later, in the water-treatment plants of Beijing. Two-thirds of the city’s tap water and a third of its total supply now comes from Danjiangkou.

This winter and spring, the reservoir was the capital’s lifeline. No rain or snow fell in Beijing between October 23rd 2017 and March 17th 2018—by far the longest drought on record. Yet the city suffered no supply disruptions, unlike Shanxi province to the west, where local governments rationed water. The central government is exultant, since the project which irrigates Beijing was built at vast cost and against some opposition.

The South-to-North Water Diversion Project—to give the structure its proper name—is the most expensive infrastructure enterprise in the world. It is the largest transfer of water between river basins in history, and China’s main response to its worst environmental threat, which is (despite all the pollution) lack of water.

The route between Beijing and Danjiangkou, which lies on a tributary of the Yangzi, opened in 2014. An eastern route opened in 2013 using the ancient Grand Canal between Hangzhou and the capital. (Jaw-dropping hydrological achievements are a feature of Chinese history.) A third link is planned on the Tibetan plateau, but since that area is prone to earthquakes and landslides, it has been postponed indefinitely…

Downstream from Danjiangkou, pollution has proved intractable. By diverting water from the Yangzi, the project has made the river more sluggish. It has become less able to wash away contaminants and unable to sustain wetlands, which act as sponges and reduce flooding. To compensate for water taken from their rivers, local governments are also building dams wherever they can to divert it back again. Shaanxi province, for example, is damming the Han river to transfer water to its depleted river Wei….Worst of all, the project diverts not only water but money and attention from China’s real water problem: waste and pollution.

Excerpts from Water: Massive Diversiion, Economist, Apr. 7, 2018

Flying off the Shelves: the entrenching of drone warfare

Wing Loong II, 2017. Image from wikipedia

A 2018 report published by Drone Wars UK reveals that over the last five years the number of countries actively using armed drones has quadrupled. Drone Wars: The Next Generation demonstrates that from just three states (US, UK and Israel) in 2013, there are now a further nine who have deployed armed drones in a variety of roles including for armed conflict and counter-terror operations. The report also shows that a further nine states are very close to having armed drone capabilities, almost doubling the number of existing users. To this number, we have added five non-state actors who have used armed drones, which will take the number of active operators of armed drones to over 25 in the next few years.

As is well known, China has sold armed drones to a number of countries around the world. Since 2013, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, UAE and Egypt have begun operating armed Chinese drones whilst another four countries (Jordan, Myanmar, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan) are thought to have recently taken possession of, or be in discussion about the sale of, Chinese drones. These Wing Loong and CH series drones are cheaper and less powerful than US Predators and Reapers.  As, according to their specifications, they are not capable of delivering a payload of at least 500 kg to a range of at least 300 km they do not fall into the category of systems that would be refused under Category 1 of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) as the US systems do.

Turkey, Pakistan and Iran are actively using their own manufactured drones. Iran has, it seems, supplied Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis with armed drones while ISIS and the PKK  (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) have attached small explosives to off-the-shelf drones. Turkey are thought to be concluding deal with Qatar and the Ukrain eand South Korea are very close to beginning production of their own armed drones.

As for the larger countries that one might expect to have already deployed armed drones, such as Russia and India, they still appear to be some distance from producing workable models…Several cross-European projects are underway to develop indigenous armed drones within the EU.

Excerpts from New research shows rise in number of states deploying armed drones, Press Release from Drone Wars UK, May 17, 2018

Extreme Markets: the fascination for wild genitalia

Tomohon, in the highlands of North Sulawesi, Indonesia is …the “extreme market”. There is certainly something extreme about the serried carcasses, blackened by blow torches to burn off the fur, the faces charred in a rictus grin.   The pasar extrim speaks to Sulawesi’s striking biogeography. The Indonesian island straddles the boundary between Asiatic and Australian species—and boasts an extraordinary number of species found nowhere else. But the market also symbolises how Asia’s amazing biodiversity is under threat. Most of the species on sale in Tomohon have seen populations crash because of overhunting (habitat destruction has played a part too)…

An hour’s drive from Tomohon is Bitung, terminus for ferry traffic from the Moluccan archipelago and Papua, Indonesia’s easternmost province. These regions are even richer in wildlife, especially birds. Trade in wild birds is supposedly circumscribed. Yet the ferries are crammed with them: Indonesian soldiers returning from a tour in Papua typically pack a few wild cockatoos or lories to sell. One in five urban households in Indonesia keeps birds. Bitung feeds Java’s huge bird markets. The port is also a shipment point on a bird-smuggling route to the Philippines and then to China, Taiwan, even Europe. Crooked officials enable the racket.

The trade in animal parts used for traditional medicine or to denote high status, especially in China and Vietnam, is an even bigger racket. Many believe ground rhino horn to be effective against fever, as well as to make you, well, horny. Javan and Sumatran rhinos were not long ago widespread across South-East Asia, but poaching has confined them to a few tiny pockets of the islands after which they are named. Numbers of the South Asian rhinoceros are healthier, yet poachers in Kaziranga national park in north-east India have killed 74 in the past three years alone.

Name your charismatic species and measure decline. Between 2010 and 2017 over 2,700 of the ivory helmets of the helmeted hornbill, a striking bird from South-East Asia, were seized, with Hong Kong a notorious transshipment hub. It is critically endangered. As for the tiger, in China and Vietnam its bones and penis feature in traditional medicine, while tiger fangs and claws are emblems of status and power. Fewer than 4,000 tigers survive in the wild. The pressure from poachers is severe, especially in India. The parts of over 1,700 tigers have been seized since 2000.

Asia’s wildlife mafias have gone global. Owing to Asian demand for horns, the number of rhinos poached in South Africa leapt from 13 in 2007 to 1,028 last year. The new frontline is South America. A jaguar’s four fangs, ten claws, pelt and genitalia sell for $20,000 in AsiaSchemes to farm animals, which some said would undercut incentives to poach, have proved equally harmful. Lion parts from South African farms are sold in Asia as a cheaper substitute for tiger, or passed off as tiger—either way, stimulating demand. The farming of tigers in China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam provides cover for the trafficking of wild tiger parts. Meanwhile, wild animals retain their cachet—consumers of rhino horn believe the wild rhino grazes only on medicinal plants.

Excerpts from  Wasting Wildlife, Economist, Apr. 21, 2018, at 36

Furthest from their Minds: greenhouse gases in Afirca

When sub-Saharan Africa comes up in discussions of climate change, it is almost invariably in the context of adapting to the consequences, such as worsening droughts. That makes sense. The region is responsible for just 7.1% of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions, despite being home to 14% of its people. Most African countries do not emit much carbon dioxide. Yet there are some notable exceptions.

Start with coal-rich South Africa, which belches out more carbon dioxide than Britain, despite having 10m fewer people and an economy one-eighth the size. Like nearly all of its power plants, many of its vehicles depend on coal, which is used to make the country’s petrol (a technique that helped the old apartheid regime cope with sanctions). A petrochemical complex in the town of Secunda owned by Sasol, a big energy and chemicals firm, is one of the world’s largest localised sources of greenhouse gases.  Zambia is another exception. It burns so much vegetation that its land-use-related emissions surpass those of Brazil, a notorious—and much larger—deforester.

South Africa and Zambia may be extreme examples, but they are not the region’s only big emitters . Nigerian households and businesses rely on dirty diesel generators for 14GW of power, more than the country’s installed capacity of 10GW. Subsistence farmers from Angola to Kenya use slash-and-burn techniques to fertilise fields with ash and to make charcoal, which nearly 1bn Africans use to cook. This, plus the breakneck growth of extractive industries, explains why African forests are disappearing at a rate of 0.5% a year, faster than in South America. Because trees sequester carbon, cutting them counts as emissions in climate accounting.

Other African countries are following South Africa’s lead and embracing coal…A new coal-fired power plant ….Lamu in Kenya is one of many Chinese-backed coal projects in Africa…Africa’s sunny skies and long, blustery coastlines offer near-limitless solar- and wind-energy potential. But what African economies need now are “spinning reserves”, which can respond quickly to volatile demand, says Josh Agenbroad of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a think-tank in Colorado. Fossil fuels deliver this; renewables do not…. Several countries are intrigued by hybrid plants where most electricity is generated by solar panels, but diesel provides the spinning reserves…

Excerpts from  Africa and Climate Change: A Burning Issue, Economist,  Apr. 21, 2018, at 41.

The 1 Million Genies out of the Bottle

The head of the U.S. Departement of Homeland Security  (DHS)  on May 15, 2018 told Congress that the agency needs new legal authority to track threatening drones and disable or destroy them if necessary.  “Our enemies are exploring other technologies, too, such as drones, to put our country in danger. ISIS has used armed drones to strike targets in Syria, and we are increasingly concerned that they will try the same tactic on our soil,” she said…

Government and private-sector officials are concerned that dangerous or even hostile drones could get too close to places like military bases, airports and sports stadiums.Nielsen added that DHS has “also seen drones used to smuggle drugs across our borders and to conduct surveillance on sensitive government locations.”

In 2017, the Federal Aviation Administration barred drone flights over major U.S. nuclear sites. The FAA also banned drone flights over 10 U.S. landmarks, including the Statue of Liberty in New York and Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.  Also banned in 2017 were drone flights over 133 U.S. military facilities. The Pentagon said in August 2017 that U.S. military bases could shoot down drones that pose a threat.  The FAA said in January 2017  that more than 1 million drones have been registered. Last week, the U.S. Transportation Department picked 10 pilot projects allowing drone use at night, out of sight operations and over populated areas

Exceprts from U.S. agency seeks new authority to disable threatening drones, May 15, 2018

Congo, China and Battery Minerals

Electric truck battery pack between the axles. Image from wikipedia

The demand of cobalt is bound to increase because of the batteries needed to power  electric vehicles (EVs).  Each battery uses about 10kg of cobalt. It is widely known that more than half of the world’s cobalt reserves and production are in one dangerously unstable country, the Democratic Republic of Congo. What is less well known is that four-fifths of the cobalt sulphates and oxides used to make the all-important cathodes for lithium-ion batteries are refined in China. (Much of the other 20% is processed in Finland, but its raw material, too, comes from a mine in Congo, majority-owned by a Chinese firm, China Molybdenum.)

On March 14t, 2018 concerns about China’s grip on Congo’s cobalt production deepened when GEM, a Chinese battery maker, said it would acquire a third of the cobalt shipped by Glencore, the world’s biggest producer of the metal, between 2018 and 2020—equivalent to almost half of the world’s 110,000-tonne production in 2017. This is likely to add momentum to a rally that has pushed the price of cobalt up from an average of $26,500 a tonne in 2016 to above $90,000 a tonne

South Korean and Japanese tech firms and it’s a big concern of theirs that so much of the world’s cobalt sulphate comes from China. Memories are still fresh of a maritime squabble in 2010, during which China restricted exports of rare-earth metals vital to Japanese tech firms. China produces about 85% of the world’s rare earths.

Few analysts expect the cobalt market to soften soon. Production in Congo is likely to increase in the next few years, but some investment may be deterred by a recent five-fold leap in royalties on cobalt. Investment elsewhere is limited because cobalt is almost always mined alongside copper or nickel. Even at current prices, the quantities needed are not enough to justify production for cobalt alone.

But demand could explode if EVs surge in popularity… the use of cobalt for EVs could jump from 9,000 tonnes in 2017 to 107,000 tonnes in 2026.  The resulting higher prices would eventually unlock new sources of supply. But already non-Chinese battery manufacturers are looking for ways to protect themselves from potential shortages. Their best answer to date is nickel.

The materials most commonly used for cathodes in EV batteries are a combination of nickel, manganese and cobalt known as NMC, and one of nickel, cobalt and aluminium known as NCA. As cobalt has become pricier and scarcer, some battery makers have produced cobalt-lite cathodes by raising the nickel content—to as much as eight times the amount of cobalt. This allows the battery to run longer on a single charge, but makes it harder to manufacture and more prone to burst into flames. The trick is to get the balance right.

Strangely, nickel has not had anything like cobalt’s price rise. Nor do the Chinese appear to covet it… Nickel prices plummeted from $29,000 a tonne in 2011 to below $10,000 a tonne 2017…. But by 2025 McKinsey expects EV-related nickel demand to rise 16-fold to 550,000 tonnes.

In theory, the best way to ensure sufficient supplies of both nickel and cobalt would be for prices to rise enough to make mining them together more profitable. But that would mean more expensive batteries, and thus electric vehicles.

Excerpts from The Scramble for Battery Minerals, Economist, Mar. 24, 2018