Tag Archives: air pollution

Air, Water, Waste and Death

UN Environment and WHO have agreed a new, wide-ranging collaboration to accelerate action to curb environmental health risks that cause an estimated 12.6 million deaths a year.

On January 10, 2018 in Nairobi, Mr Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment, and Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO, signed an agreement to step up joint actions to combat air pollution, climate change and antimicrobial resistance, as well as improve coordination on waste and chemicals management, water quality, and food and nutrition issues. The collaboration also includes joint management of the BreatheLife advocacy campaign to reduce air pollution for multiple climate, environment and health benefits

“Our health is directly related to the health of the environment we live in. Together, air, water and chemical hazards kill more than 12.6 million people a year. This must not continue,” said WHO’s Tedros.  He added: “Most of these deaths occur in developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America where environmental pollution takes its biggest health toll.”

Excerpts from, UN Environment and WHO agree to major collaboration on environmental health risks, Press Release, Jan. 10, 2017

The 2020 Deadline

image from wikipedia

Circle January 2020 on your calendar for what could be a major disruption to the energy market and a jolt to the global economy.The origin of the problem isn’t some oil cartel’s machinations, a looming war or even a technological shift — it is a bureaucratic body that few people have heard of: the International Maritime Organization. Just 30 months from now the cargo vessels that are the lifeblood of global trade will be required to cut the sulfur content in their fuel from 3.5% to 0.5%.

Ships move more than 10 billion tons of cargo a year and do it far more efficiently than road or rail, but it comes at a high cost in terms of overall pollution because ships use fuel oil, which is just about the cheapest, dirtiest stuff to come out of refineries. About 9% of all sulfur dioxide emitted globally comes from ships, contributing to acid rain and many premature deaths annually. Even the new cap is 500 times the sulfur content of most road diesel.

Even with significant investment, refiners may not be ready and ships may have to burn more expensive marine diesel.”Marine diesel affects land diesel which affects jet fuel which affects gasoline,” explains Mr. Tallett. That could cause the prices of those fuels to go up by 10% to 20%.

The only solution may be to simply refine more oil, which means increasing overall demand, to get enough low-sulfur fuel out of the world’s refineries. The International Energy Agency worried about the impact in a February 2017 report, yet it assumes many ships will install marine scrubbers to clean the dirty fuel and that refiners will add units to reduce sulfur content — both expensive propositions.

Excerpts from High Seas are to Deliver a Shock to Energy Sector, Wall Street Journal, June 7, 2017

The Sleuth Behind Discovering the Volkswagen Violations

Volkswagen Logo 2012. Image from wikipedia

The scandal broke on September 18th, when America’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) revealed that several diesel-engined VWs and Audis had software which switched NOx-controlling technology on only when faced with the highly predictable sort of demands seen under test conditions. The NOx-emission limit for a fleet of cars is 0.07 grams per mile (0.04g/km); under normal conditions the cars were 40 times over the limit. The EPA ordered VW to recall around half a million cars in America to fix the software. On September 22nd the company admitted that in 11m vehicles worldwide there was a “noticeable deviation” between the NOx emissions seen in official testing and those found in real-world use.

On the basis of 482,000 cars sold and a maximum fine of $37,500 per vehicle under the Clean Air Act, the Department of Justice could in theory fine VW $18 billion..But fines are not the only losses involved. Class-action lawsuits from aggrieved motorists will arrive at the speed of a turbocharged Porsche. On September 22nd VW announced a €6.5 billion ($7.3 billion) provision to cover the costs of the scandal but that is likely to prove too little. By that stage the company’s value had fallen €26 billion.

The financial damage could go further. Hidden within the German firm is a big finance operation that makes loans to car buyers and dealers and also takes deposits, acting as a bank. Its assets have more than doubled in the past decade and make up 44% of the firm’s total. And it may be vulnerable to a run. In previous crises “captive-finance” arms of industrial firms have proven fragile. After the Deepwater Horizon disaster BP’s oil-derivative trading arm was cut off from long-term contracts by some counterparties. General Motors’ former finance arm, GMAC, had to be bailed out in 2009.

With €164 billion of assets in June, VW’s finance operation is as big as GMAC was six years ago, and it appears to be more dependent on short-term debts and deposits to fund itself.,,

If depositors, lenders and counterparties were to refuse to roll over funds to VW, the company could hang on for a bit. It has €33 billion of cash and marketable securities on hand, as well as unused bank lines and the cashflow from the car business. The German government would lean on German banks to prop up their tarnished national champion, 20% of which is owned by the state of Lower Saxony. So far the cost of insuring VW’s debt has risen, but not to distressed levels. Still, unless the company convinces the world that it can contain the cost of its dishonesty, it could yet face a debt and liquidity crisis.

Doubts about NOx emissions from VW’s four-cylinder TDI series of diesels (which can also be found in Seats and Skodas) first surfaced after testing by the International Council on Clean Transportation, a small NGO, two years ago. The tests—intended, ironically, to demonstrate the engines’ cleanliness—revealed that the cars’ emissions far exceeded what the company had previously stated. The ICCT brought the results to the attention of the California Air Resources Board (CARB), which badgered VW into a voluntary recall to fix what the company insisted were “technical issues”. When the recall failed to resolve things VW offered excuse after excuse before eventually confessing—it was still dithering when the EPA, with which CARB had shared its results, finally acted.

Excerpts from The Volkswagen Scandal: A Mucky Business, Economist, Sept. 26, 2015, at 23

Reducing Rubbish: Incinerators in China

waste to energy plant in Shenzhen China built by Keppel Seghers.  Image from http://www.keppelseghers.com/

As China urbanises, its cities are producing a lot more rubbish. They are running out of good places for landfills and are turning instead to burning rubbish, generating electricity at “waste-to-energy” plants.. About 70 such incinerators are now being built, in addition to more than 180 in operation. Cities increased their capacity to incinerate waste tenfold in the decade to 2013, allowing the country to burn more than a quarter of its formally collected urban rubbish. Techsci Research, a consultancy, expects the market for incinerators in China roughly to double in size by 2018, much faster than the pace worldwide.

Cities in Japan and several European countries burn a higher proportion of their rubbish and recycle a lot of the rest (although only Japan ranks ahead of China in tonnes burned per day). Most rubbish in China ends up either in landfills or in unregulated heaps outside cities, where it gives off methane as it decomposes. There is a lot of informal recycling: people pick through rubbish at dumps looking for items such as plastic bottles that can be sold to recycling factories. But the heaps contaminate the soil and groundwater. Plastics flow down rivers into the sea, harming ocean life. A recent study concluded that China was by far the biggest source of plastics in the oceans… Building [incinerators] will require the government to do more to earn the trust of a public that is rightly suspicious of official pledges to protect the environment. Some older incinerators have not burned as cleanly as promised, belching foul-smelling smoke from their furnaces.

The latest generation of incinerators in China may help to overcome public scepticism. Shanghai is the city producing the most household rubbish in the country: 22,000 tonnes a day. Space for new landfills is becoming scarce as existing ones reach capacity, including China’s largest, Laogang, on the coast near the city. Each day about a seventh of the city’s rubbish glides past that landfill by barge to be dumped into two large pits at an incinerator next door. In odourless rooms overlooking each pit, workers use joysticks to manipulate gigantic German-made steel claws a bit like the ones in fairground games used to retrieve sweets and toys. The claws descend and close their jaws, grabbing seven or eight tonnes at each go. The workers then move them up towards the pit’s high ceiling and drop the waste into furnaces built with technology from Germany, Japan and elsewhere.

The waste burns at temperatures of 850°C or higher, hot enough to eliminate toxic dioxin pollutants. The gases heat water to produce steam, in turn driving turbines that generate electricity. On a recent visit to the site, there was no detectable odour outside. Digital displays monitored emission levels of sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide and other pollutants. Zhang Yi, a senior manager at SMI Environment, a local state-owned enterprise that runs the Laogang furnaces, says its facilities were built to “the strictest standard” in the world. A high proportion of imported technology and a need for careful operation make SMI’s incinerators expensive to build and operate, Mr Zhang says. State-owned companies, he insists, have a special responsibility to the public.

Normally this sort of claim makes Chinese citizens scoff. Many of the factories and mills that have polluted rivers or made skies smoggy are state-owned…Environmental-impact assessments must be done, but these are paid for by the people who are building and approving the projects. Favourable assessments lead to more work and unfavourable ones to less. Neighbours of a planned project are often consulted in a desultory way, despite legal requirements for notices and hearings. The more controversial a project is, the less likely that rules about public consultation will be obeyed, and the more likely that nastier tactics, including hired thugs, will be relied upon to silence critics.

The Laogang incinerator is one of several that burn 3,000 tonnes of rubbish a day, including one in Beijing; the one in Hangzhou will be another. A planned new burner, to be completed in 2017, would make the Laogang facility the largest in the world, burning 9,000 tonnes a day. The goal by then is to increase the share of Shanghai’s household waste that is incinerated from about a third to three-quarters.

Nationally, China’s planners had wanted 35% of urban household waste to be incinerated by the end of 2015…[But]Incinerators are insatiable beasts and must keep being fed rubbish for decades to be economical. The more of them there are, the less incentive there is to recycle, and to produce less rubbish in the first place. But at present, as China’s waste problem keeps growing, the country most certainly needs to keep on burning.

Waste disposal: Keep the fires burning, Economist, Apr. 25, 2015, at 42

How South East Asia’s Palm Oil Conglomerates Pollute the Air

Pollution over Indonesia and the Indian Ocean on October 22, 1997. White represents the aerosols (smoke) that remained in the vicinity of the fires. Green, yellow, and red pixels represent increasing smog being carried to the west by high-altitude winds.  Image from wikipedia

Since the mid-1980s, when Indonesia first began to clear its bountiful forests on an industrial scale in favour of lucrative palm-oil plantations, “haze” has become an almost annual occurrence in South-East Asia. The cheapest way to clear logged woodland is to burn it, producing an acrid cloud of foul white smoke that, carried by the wind, can cover hundreds, or even thousands, of square miles.

The intervening decades have seen the passage of numerous national and international regulations to stop the fires, but all, it seems, to no avail. The past two weeks have seen some of the worst smog ever, taking a severe toll not only on peoples’ lungs, throats and tempers, but also on diplomatic relations and Indonesia’s attempts to improve its environmental image. Worse still, despite the outcry, it is hard to see how matters are going to improve over the next few years.

Most of the burning, which starts every dry season, is concentrated this year in Riau province on the east coast of Sumatra. Indonesia is the world’s biggest palm-oil producer and Riau its most productive province. Sadly for Singapore and Malaysia, it lies just across the Strait of Malacca from them. From June 16th Singapore and large parts of Malaysia were smothered in smog from this year’s fires.

In Singapore the pollution was the worst ever, pummelling the previous records set in 1997, when the haze affected six countries and perhaps 70m people. Then, the Pollutants Standard Index (PSI) in Singapore, a measure of air quality, hit a panic-inducing 226, defined as “very unhealthy”. On June 19th, by contrast (the day of the satellite picture above), the PSI climbed to over 300, defined as “hazardous”, before peaking at 401 on June 21st. The government issued face masks and almost everyone took its advice to stay indoors. Malaysia declared a state of emergency in parts of its southern state of Johor when the Air Pollution Index, only slightly different from Singapore’s PSI, exceeded 500; it reached 750 on June 23rd. Kuala Lumpur, the capital, and coastal cities were also badly affected, as was Riau province itself, where hundreds were evacuated.

Fraternal relations within the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the regional political grouping, quickly dissolved into acrimonious finger-pointing. Agung Laksono, the minister in charge of Indonesia’s response to the crisis, said that Singaporeans were behaving “like children, in such a tizzy”. Singaporeans and Malaysians pointed out that Indonesia was the only ASEAN member not to have ratified a 2002 Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution. It was only on June 24th, when the damage was done, that its president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, apologised to his irate neighbours.

At least three laws in Indonesia prohibit the burning and clearance of forests, and in particular Sumatra’s extensive peat wetlands. But environmental campaigners argue that the government has never seriously enforced these laws. Despite the arrest in Sumatra this week of eight farmers, supposedly caught red-handed, hardly anyone has been successfully prosecuted over the years for lighting fires. Palm oil’s economic importance to Indonesia seems to afford the industry protection. Last year exports totalled $17.9 billion, second only to coal. Some 5m people live off the industry. These are big numbers in a relatively poor country.

About half of the vast amount of land on which the fires are burning in Sumatra belongs to big palm-oil conglomerates, many of them Malaysian-owned. They have been accused of setting illegal fires in the past, in order to clear more of their concessions for palm oil. Satellite imagery clearly shows fires burning on the land of some of them, and the Indonesian government has named eight companies that it wants to investigate. Even so, it is going to be very difficult to apportion blame. One company, Singapore-based Asia Pacific Resources International Limited, acknowledges that there have been three fires on its land, but claims these had “originally started outside of its concession area”.

Another perennial problem is corruption. This year’s disaster was preceded on June 14th by the arrest of Rusli Zainal, the governor of Riau since 2003. He was charged, among other crimes, with dishing out illegal logging permits to finance a forthcoming re-election campaign. Under the country’s political decentralisation in 2001, generally considered to be good for democracy, the power to regulate land use passed from Jakarta to regional and often district-level politicians. They have often abused this authority to raise money.

Much of the area now burning in Riau is peat wetland, almost all that’s left after years of rampant deforestation. Peat, which can go down to a depth of 30m in Sumatra, is highly combustible, even many metres down. A fire doused on the surface might smoulder underground long after. It is illegal to burn peat for commercial development. But as the past few weeks have proved, the law is not enough. And, ominously for those hoping for clear skies and clean air, a lot of peat is left.

South-East Asia’s smog: Unspontaneous combustion, Economist, June 29, 2013, at 39

Top Five Worst Polluters in Gas Flaring

An international coalition led by the World Bank is calling for state-backed and private oil producers to reduce “gas flaring” by an additional 30 percent over the next five years, saying that doing so would be equivalent to taking 60 million cars off of the roads.  Analysts widely characterised the goal as both ambitious and significant, though it follows on an apparent levelling out in flaring reductions in recent years.

Since a major new push began in 2005, the World Bank-led Global Gas Flaring Reduction (GGFR)* partnership estimates that, through 2011, its actions have brought down gas flaring by 20 percent, eliminating around 274 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions.  But according to the GGFR – a coalition of 20 major oil companies and 19 countries..both the economic and environmental impacts of gas flaring require far greater reductions.  “A 30 percent cut in five years is a realistic goal,” Rachel Kyte, the World Bank’s vice-president for sustainable development, said…

Oil producers resort to flaring when gas, a by-product of oil, is brought up to the surface but cannot easily be repurposed for consumers. Instead, producers simply burn off the product, the value of which the World Bank, based here in Washington, puts at some 50 billion dollars a year.  The total amount of gas estimated to have been flared last year, about five trillion cubic feet, is said to equal the amount of natural gas used in the United States over a full year.

Environmentalists have long called for the outright banning of the practice, though flaring does in fact release far lower levels of greenhouse gases than simply allowing the gas to evaporate. However, the process does not deal with one notorious pollutant, nitrogen oxide, and still releases significant carbon dioxide, and thus significant greenhouse gas-related worries remain.

Alternative uses for this gas range from producing power, refining it for use in local markets, or even putting it back into the ground. But analysts say the economic benefits for companies in doing so are low.  Nonetheless, the World Bank reports slow but steady success in reductions, particularly since 2005. According to data released Mexico has cut its flaring by two-thirds and Azerbaijan by half in just two years, while Kuwait gotten its flaring down to just one percent of previous levels.  In addition, Qatar and Congo have been singled out for using the gas to make electricity.

Significant improvements have also been seen in many of the world’s worst flaring offenders. “Huge investments” by GGFR partners have reportedly helped Nigeria to reduce its flaring by nearly a quarter through 2011, while Russia, the most significant culprit in this regard, has reduced flaring by around 40 percent, though those figures rose last year.  Still, the World Bank warned that both of these countries, particularly Russia, in addition to Mexico, Iraq and Kazakhstan, need to make significant improvements.

Missing from this list, however, is one of the most significant outliers in the global push against gas flaring: the United States, which has increased its gas flaring by more than three times since 2007, more than any other country.  The U.S. is currently in the midst of a sea-changing boom in natural gas production, thanks almost entirely to new technologies (so-called hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”) that have allowed for the exploitation of previously off-limits gas deposits in shale and other geological formations.

Against the promising country-by-country numbers, total global gas flaring actually increased last year by around two billion cubic metres, which World Bank analysts have put down to output from Russia and, specifically, the U.S. state of North Dakota.  “The small increase underlines the importance for countries and companies to sustain and even accelerate efforts to reduce flaring of gas associated with oil production,” Bent Svensson, manager of the GGFR partnership, said when the 2011 figures became available in July. “It is a warning sign that major gains over the past few years could be lost if oil-producing countries and companies don’t step up their efforts.”

The U.S. is now the fifth-largest flarer, behind Russia, Nigeria, Iran and Iraq. While part of this is due to the multifold increase in production in recent years, it also appears to be due to a lag in implementing the necessary infrastructure.  “Due to insufficient natural gas pipeline capacity and processing facilities … over 35% of North Dakota’s natural gas production … has been flared or otherwise not marketed,” the U.S. government reported in late 2011. “The percentage of flared gas in North Dakota is considerably higher than the national average; in 2009, less than 1% of natural gas produced in the United States was vented or flared.”…But based on new EPA rules, “the U.S. is going to have 100 percent no-flaring by 2015, which will be pretty good in terms of the rest of the world,” Kyle Ash, a Washington-based legislative analyst with Greenpeace, an advocacy group, told IPS.

Excerpts, By Carey L. Biron, U.S. Outlier in New Push to Reduce Gas Flaring,Inter Press Service,Oct. 24, 2012

*The GGFR partners include: Algeria (Sonatrach), Angola (Sonangol), Azerbaijan, Cameroon (SNH), Ecuador (PetroEcuador), Equatorial Guinea, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), France, Gabon, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Khanty-Mansijsysk (Russia), Mexico (SENER), Nigeria, Norway, Qatar, the United States (DOE) and Uzbekistan; BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ENI, ExxonMobil, Marathon Oil, Maersk Oil & Gas, Pemex, Qatar Petroleum, Shell, Statoil, TOTAL; European Union, the World Bank Group; Associated partner: Wärtsilä.