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Never Forget Climate Breakdown

But Let’s Remember Air Pollution

Climate breakdown is increasingly called “existential,” suggesting our very existence is at stake.  Which it is.  By continuing to rely on fossil fuels we are driving our entire planet into a very dangerous place, especially as we approach 2100.  It is global and long lasting.

Air pollution typically is more localized and limited in space and often in time.  Sometimes it is an industrial plant where day-to-day operations spew out toxic substances that affect a neighborhood over a span of decades.  Sometimes it is radioactive materials spread by an explosion at a nuclear plant, as at Chernobyl where an area of about 30km of the earth was despoiled for hundreds of years.   Sometimes it is an accumulation of exhaust from vehicular traffic and burning of fossil fuels to heat buildings, especially in dense urban areas, or from agriculture. 

There is no question that generally the air is less polluted now than it was in several decades after World War II when economic activity grew fast and chemical-based, and toxic, products replaced natural materials, e.g. rubber.  The improvements derived largely from the environmental protection laws and regulations, and public support, that developed in the 1970s and 1980s.   

But air pollution continues to present wide-spread and serious risks, and they are risks that confront us now, not in 2100.  The World Health Organization concluded last year that air pollution is “the single largest environmental threat to human health and well-being.”  Appelbaum.  Recent studies have demonstrated that even low levels of air pollution are debilitating and even deadly, especially from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.  “A study of the health records of 68.5 million Medicare recipients … found that regular exposure to low levels of air pollution significantly increased the chances of an early death.”  Appelbaum.  Other research discovered that in the early days of the COVID pandemic Americans had fewer heart attacks because, in large part, they were inhaling less air pollution.

Of course, burning fossil fuels is behind both climate breakdown and air pollution.  We can actually walk and chew gum at the same time, so why not deal with air pollution at the same time that we deal with climate breakdown.

One advantage of dealing with environmental risks as an air pollution problem, rather than as climate breakdown, is that the air pollution can be sold as a direct, current threat.  Yes we are seeing some impacts from climate breakdown affecting us now, as with increases in numbers and intensity of extreme weather events, but much of what is so scary is the distant impact in 2100.

Many have suggested treating impacts from climate breakdown as health problems, and that makes sense.  But talking about air pollution as a health problem is more natural.  Air pollution began as a health problem and remains one.   And in the US the legal ground for regulating air pollution is firmer that regulating climate emissions.

If we can reduce or eliminate fossil-fuel particulate emissions under the authority of “air pollution” regulation, rather than as greenhouse gas emissions, why not embrace it.  A recent poll of public attitudes of 23,577 adults aged 16-74 in 31 countries found that “concerns about climate change” were in 8th place, behind “not having enough money”, fears of terrorism and threat of crime.  First on the list was “your health and your family’s health.”  Inman.

 

Sources:

Binyamin Appelbaum, “Enough About Climate Change. Air Pollution Is Killing Us Now, “ The New York Times (20 April 2022). 

Gary Fuller, “Law needs to protect UK from spring air pollution increase,” The Guardian (22 April 2022).  bit.ly/3OBvlGU via @guardian

EEA, Europe’s air quality status 2022, in Commentary section of current (May 2022) issue of www.irishenvironment.com

Phillip Inman, “The key to winning the climate debate isn’t economics: it’s health,” The Guardian (23 April 2022). bit.ly/36Rxq0e

Putin may not be as dumb as he seems

Instead of chasing some fantasy Empire, maybe he is invading Ukraine to capture its natural resources

In the declining fossil-dominate world, international disputes, including wars, have been started for control over critical sources of energy, including oil and gas.  So why won’t the same dynamics work in a fossil-free world.

Our energy is increasingly relying on carbon-free sustainable sources like solar, wind, and hydro.  These sources, in turn, power the electricity for cars, heating and other systems.  And electricity can depend on batteries, which need lithium and other metals.

So if we have engaged in disputes and wars over oil and gas, why not over metals like lithium and titanium.

 

 

 

 

 

Ukraine has the second largest natural gas reserves in Europe, with 1.09 trillion cubic meters, second only to Norway’s 1.53 trillion cubic meters. And it has 20% of titanium reserves in the world, as well as large lithium reserves.

The lithium and other precious metals are found in eastern Ukraine, in the Donetsk region, which Russia has been trying to wrestle from Ukraine since 2014 and which is an area of special interest in Russia’s current, brutal invasion of Ukraine.

Only last year Ukraine started to auction off exploration permits for lithium reserves, as well as for copper, cobalt and nickel, other resources important to clean energy technology.  The largest lithium companies, in China and Australia, have actively pursued rights to these precious metals.

Watch for the issue of rights to lithium and other metals in Eastern Ukraine in any settlement negotiations.

Of course it is possible, even likely, that Putin is as dumb as he looks, and his invasion of Ukraine was motivated by the narcissistic fantasy of a new Russian Empire, headed by Czar or Emperor Putin.

Whatever Putin’s motivation, the interplay between energy and political power serves to highlight an area of the fossil-free world that is just now becoming explored.  Political power may turn on who controls the metals necessary for the technologies to manage GHG emissions, including through solar panels, wind turbines, batteries and electric vehicles.  As David Roberts has pointed out, “Recently, there’s been a lot of talk in the energy world about the minerals needed by clean-energy technologies and whether mineral supply problems might pose a threat to the clean-energy transition.”

As we look to the future we need to start developing an appreciation and understanding of who will control critical metal resources.  Such analyses will require geologic, geographic and geopolitical considerations.

 

Sources:

Hiiroko Tabuchi, “Before War, Race Was On for Ukraine’s Lithium,” The New York Times (8 March 2022)

Lithium reserves in depths of Ukraine. Investing in Ukraine, GT Invest Ukraine www.youtube.com/watch?v=LEgqafjfa50

Russia Ukraine Crisis: What Putin Really Wants From Ukraine News Mo www.youtube.com/watch?v=eymIOKusWkQ

David Roberts, “Minerals and the clean-energy transition: the basics.  A challenge, but not a dealbreaker,” Volts (21 Jan 2022).  bit.ly/3Lt53UX

Checking on your drafty window or door from space

Clever tech-climate advances

 

When people consider the possibilities of technological advances to help counteract climate breakdown, they often look at the ”big picture.”  That includes such developments as carbon capture and storage (CCS), seeding clouds, sending sun-blocking particles into the air, and other geoengineering feats.

But sometimes overlooked are smaller, focused actions that affect targeted areas or certain populations or activities, but which also can be adopted for other critical needs of environmental protection.

Recent developments have made it possible to survey small areas, including neighborhoods, using satellites to detect emissions.  A notable use has been detecting methane leaks from gas pipelines, allowing regulators to take enforcement action against the leaks.

An interesting and imaginative variation under development is the use of satellites with thermal imaging to pinpoint heat loss from individual buildings.  A UK company is preparing to launch seven satellite probes that will undertake a worldwide survey measuring heat coming from buildings.  The infrared cameras are capable of measuring heat emission from any building on the planet, and can identify where the buildings are leaking energy and wasting power, whether from doors or windows.

The data can be sold to organisations, companies or governmental authorities for focusing resources on specific buildings that need energy efficiency measures.  Enhancing energy efficiency in residential and commercial buildings is an important, and underutilized, measure for reducing GHGs.

Further uses of the satellite probes may include monitoring river pollution from factories, status of solar panels, and monitoring wildfire outbreaks in open land.

If the probes were applied to methane emissions, it would be interesting if methane leaks could be pinpointed for every building.  Or even methane emissions from every cow?

There are other tech advances that provide novel ways of helping us deal with threats to our environment.  Here are a few.

AI to find whales across vast oceans

If we want to preserve whales through marine protected areas, we need to know where they are.  Oceans are vast but one advantage is the distinctive singing of whales can travel hundreds of miles underwater.  The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) has used acoustic recorders for 14 years to monitor marine mammals at remote and hard-to-access islands, accumulating 190,000 hours of acoustic recordings.  Sorting through such a massive data set to manually identify whale vocalisations has always been overtaxing.  Working with Google AI for Social Good, NOAA used machine learning (ML) to identify whale vocalisations in the huge dataset and to map the presence of whales in the Hawaiian and Mariana islands.

Using drones to plant trees

Drones have become ubiquitous and here’s an interesting use.  Given the importance of trees to store GHGs, filter air, and nourish soil, the loss of 8.3 million acres of forest each year is not inconsequential.  Planting seeds by hand is possible but hardly able to keep up with the loss.  Now a UK-based company BioCarbon is using drones to spray tree seeds throughout ravaged forests.

Mapping drones first determine the best planting strategy for a region, then planting drones hover six feet above the ground and fire seeds so fast that they get snugly implanted into the soil.  It is claimed that 1 billion trees per year can be planted this way.  That’s a lot of potential carbon capture.

Certain technologies that have been around for a while, including solar panels and wind turbines, are getting increasingly more imaginative applications.  For instance, in drought-stricken California, a water district is building solar electricity-generating canopies over portions of the district’s canal system.  By shading the sun, the structures reduce evaporation, leaving more water for the district’s customers.  The mile-long project also could generate about 5MW of power.

In another instance, a team of researchers has determined that a wind farm the size of Greenland in the Atlantic Ocean could generate enough energy to power all of humanity, essentially eliminating the need for fossil fuels.

So while geoengineering can be daunting, and sometimes unproven as yet, there are few limits to imaginative uses of new technology.

 

Sources

Dan Charles, “A satellite finds massive methane leaks from gas pipelines,” NPR (3 Feb 2022).n.pr/3t3SMyr

Robin McKie, “Draughty window or door? Now it can be seen from space,” The Guardian (20 Feb 2022).   bit.ly/3v3uLdM

Dan Gearino, “Inside Clean Energy: In Parched California, a Project Aims to Save Water and Produce Renewable Energy,” Inside Climate News (24 Feb 2022).  bit.ly/33TbEb4

Joe McCarthy, “8 Clever Innovations That Could Help Fight Climate Change,” Global Citizen (20 April 2018).  bit.ly/3Bxvrct

Graeme Green, “Five ways AI is saving wildlife – from counting chimps to locating whales,” The Guardian (21 Feb 2022).  bit.ly/3h1tTOv

Opposition to environmental regulation

Still going strong with a few new twists, including attacks on eNGOs like An Taisce and Friends of the Irish Environment

 

In the fall of 1990, the Irish government, under Taoiseach Charles Hughey, was advancing the establishment of an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  State Papers from that period, recently released, identify the opposition’s arguments and the key opponents of the EPA.

The Department of Finance objected strongly to the proposed staffing of 133 and to an annual budget of £7 million.  No surprise there.  That’s what Finance does.

What is surprising is the vehemence of the opposition by Dermot Nally, “a long-serving secretary general of the Department of An Taoiseach.”  One doesn’t have to know anything about Nally, personally or professionally, to appreciate that such a position usually carried a lot of weight in any government.  And his obituary noted that he “was one of the most influential Irish civil servants of the last century, acting as secretary to the government from 1980 to 1993.”  Moreover, “Dermot Nally’s proudest achievement in the public service was his role in the negotiations with British counterpart Sir Robert Armstrong and the British and Irish teams on the Anglo-Irish Agreement.” That critical agreement was concluded in 1985, so when the government was considering the establishment of an EPA in the late 1980s, Nally was likely at the peak of his influence.

And that influence came crashing down on the notion of an EPA.  “In an unusual intervention by a civil servant, Nally wrote a strongly worded letter to Haughey – only days before the government decision – in which he described the EPA Bill as “objectionable.”  His opposition was more forceful.

In the letter, Nally wrote that EPA would act as a disincentive to industry to locate in Ireland, and that

Environmental protection is a worthy objective. If, however, it is allowed to become obsessional, then development will stop: and we can forget about more employment since the factories and firms and services which give that employment will not set up or expand – for ‘environmental’ reasons’…

The term “obsessional” is revealing, and disturbing.  Literally, it means “a persistent disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling.” Merriam-Webster.  It’s not just a “disturbing preoccupation” but with an “unreasonable idea or feeling.”

For Nally “development is the priority, not the environment, however important that may be.”

Finally, he suggests that “We seem to be trying to create here what Eastern Europe is trying so hard to escape from,” arguably associating the EPA with the spectre of socialism or communism or authoritarianism or something besides capitalism.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fortunately, Haughey as well as Padraig Flynn and Mary Harney, pushed through the legislation and we got the EPA in 1992-93.  But the state papers indicate that Haughey did take on some of Nally’s objections, and the EPA was born without much in the way of enforcement powers.

The Nally memo certainly reflects an antagonism to environmental regulation in the 1980s -1990s, and that undercurrent has remained in effect since then.

Over the past several decades the socio-politico tide has turned in favor of climate action and environmental protection in general, and  over the past 5-10 years EPA has become more proactive in questioning the government’s laggard climate policies and even raising questions about aspects of agriculture policy and practice.  But the anti-regulation sentiments and actions seem to surface and intensify when the environmental movement gets stronger.

It is highly unlikely now that anyone in government would talk openly about environmental regulation as Nanny did, but the opposition remains.  John Vidal reports on current efforts to undermine the UK regulation of pollution.  Last year there were tens of thousands of complaints to the Environment Agency (EA) about rivers polluted with human waste and chemicals, with fish killed, and with factories continuing to spew out dangerous fumes, with dirty, dangerous air and nature trashed.  In response the Agency with the responsibility to protect these natural resources ordered its staff to ignore all but the most obvious, high-profile incidents.  As a result Agency staff investigated only 8,000 of the 116,000 pollution incidents.  Only a handful of polluting companies were taken to court.

The line of attack on regulation is now through budgetting.  Recent leaked documents from the EA reveal how over the past 10 years the EA budget has been slashed and staff subjected to massive reductions.  According to a watchdog group, Unchecked UK, between 2011 and 2016, EA’s protection budget fell by 62% and staff were cut by a quarter; prosecutions fell by 28%; pollution incidents logged dropped by 29%; and water sampling was reduced by 28%.

In Ireland, the attack has taken a personal turn.  Instead of attacking the regulations or the budget, the regulated companies and sectors are attacking the messengers – those who are proactive in legal advocacy, particularly An Taisce and Friends of the Irish Environment.  It has gotten so obvious that at a recent conference in Dublin, Aurel Ciobanu-Dordea, who oversees governance, enforcement action and compliance on EU environmental legislation, stressed the EU concern for “the increasingly aggressive stance being taken against environmental campaigners in Ireland.”  He noted that, “There is evidence not only of increased use of Slapp [Strategic lawsuit against public participation] suits, but also negative reporting in mainstream media, and even from politicians – like threatening to cut off funding to certain NGOs.”

The attacks seem triggered by the power of the voices behind the rise in climate and environmental actions in Ireland over the past several decades.  Those voices belong to the Irish environmental Non-Government Organisations (eNGOs), the activists in the Environmental Pillar, the people in the Citizens’ Assembly, the Climate Change Advisory Council, the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action, and the Green Party.

Those who would attempt to stifle these voices need to be watched and identified and opposed.

 

Sources

Obituary, “Most influential of Irish civil servants who had ‘exceptional talents’,” The Irish Times (2 January 2010).  bit.ly/3G8mqHg

The Myth of the Costs of Environmental Regulation on Businesses in ieBLOG section of www.irishenvironment.com (February 2015) bit.ly/3AAYFGI

John Vidal, “This is what ‘cutting red tape’ gets you: rivers polluted without consequence,” The Guardian (17 Jan 2022).  bit.ly/3u5Bz9X

Kevin O’Sullivan, “EU official criticises targeting of Irish environmental NGOs,” The Irish Times (22 Jan 2022).

Ireland is Still Lagging on Climate Change in Reports section of irish environment (April 2019). bit.ly/2wqAA5a

 

Natural gas as a “transitional” fuel?

Only in the gas industry’s dreams

If we magically shut off all natural gas the question arises as to whether we could maintain current levels of energy to heat homes, power electricity, and support some industrial processes.  The natural gas industry argues heatedly that we cannot. They say that natural gas is a necessary, even critical, transition fuel to be relied upon until renewable energy sources develop enough capacity and deliverability to supply our needs.  In effect, it serves as a bridge to a full renewable energy world.

Such an argument indicates that fossil fuel industries know that in the long run that their financial viability is quite shaky, as it may be simply a matter of how long it takes for renewables to replace the fossils.  Nevertheless, in the meantime, the gas industry hopes that they can delay the inevitable for decades to squeeze out what profits they can.  Claiming to be a transitional fuel represents that lifeline.

Julian Popov, in Euractiv, points out that this argument about gas being a transitional fuel does not hold water.   As he notes, “if we look at countries that significantly reduced coal in power generation, we will see that coal is not replaced by gas and doesn’t behave as a transitional fuel. Countries reduce coal, but gas consumption does not increase but instead stays the same or even declines.”  For example, in the UK coal generation peaked at 40% in 2012 and today coal generates less than 3% of British electricity.  It is also being phased out entirely.  Yet in the last two decades, gas demand has remained flat and both gas and nuclear are in relative decline over the previous five years.  In Germany, over the last decade coal generation declined by 44% and nuclear by 49% but natural gas increased by only 13%.   Yet lights and heat remained on in German

 

 

 

Moreover, these developments were happening when natural gas prices were low and the costs of renewables were high.  Now we see a dramatic lowering in the cost of renewables and significant rising prices in gas. Under such circumstances the chance of natural gas serving as a transitional fuel is more fantasy than fact.

Popov says that “The reality is that gas does not replace coal. So far, coal has been replaced primarily by renewables and energy efficiency in power generation.”   He also notes how in buildings, another sector where natural gas has been widely relied on, gas is being replaced by heat pumps, efficient insulation and renewables, including hydrogen.  In transport, battery-operated vehicles are steadily winning the race for passenger cars.

While natural gas continues to have some limited value, Popov argues that it is not as a “transitional fuel” but as a “fuel of last resort” that might fill an occasional gap in energy supply.  Yet other technologies are more helpful, and less harmful in filling any occasional gap.  Those options include batteries, market integration, cross-border grid connectivity, digitalisation of the energy system, and others.

Finally, Popov points out that calling gas a transitional fuel is basically a PR slogan of the industry.  But language matters.  That slogan is dangerous as it is being used to push for gas as a “transitional activity,” along with nuclear, under the EU sustainable finance Taxonomy being finalized at the moment.  See Sources on Taxonomy below.

 

Sources:

Julian Popov, “Natural Gas is not a transitional fuel, so let’s stop saying it is,” Euractiv (6 Dec 2021). bit.ly/3HsRJxP

Akos Losz and Jonathan Elkind, “The Roles of Natural Gas in the Energy Transition,” Columbia Center on Global Energy Policy (24 sept 2019).  bit.ly/3sKGFI2

T&E, “That inedible dish called the EU Taxonomy” in the Commentary section of the January 2022 issue of www.irishenvironment.com

“EU Sustainable Finance Taxonomy” in ieBLOG section of the January 2022 issue of www.irishenvironment.com