New UK report slags biofuels

The Royal Institute of International Affairs, commonly known in the UK as Chatham House, has published and circulated a report entitled The Trouble with Biofuels: Costs and Consequences of Expanding Biofuel Use in the United Kingdom. GallonDaily would dismiss this report as just another uninformed attack  on the quest for a low carbon economy except that Chatham House has a substantial program on Energy, Environment and Resources and has been a leader in discussions about Climate Security and Low Carbon Growth. So what is going on here?

Although it has been hailed in some media as an in-depth look at biofuels, the Chatham House report is actually a fairly shallow analysis that focuses significantly on the economic cost of biofuels and is carefully hedged throughout with phrases such as “the current generation of biofuels” and “current biofuel standards do not ensure biofuel use is sustainable”.

New products and new technologies often have teething problems. Indeed, it would be unusual if a technology as recent as biofuels did not have some economic and environmental challenges in its early years. In the absence of funding for massive government research to perfect a new technology before introducing it to the mrket we can only overcome the challenges, or decide to scrap biofuels in favour of another low carbon alternative, if we try out the new biofuel products in the marketplace and tweak the approaches and the regulatory environment to get things right.

The Chatham House report is not nearly as negative on biofuels as its title suggests but it contains no recommendations on biofuel alternatives for transportation and only very weak recommendations on the government policies needed to help make biofuels more economically and environmentally efficient.

In summary, Chatham House finds that:

  • Biofuel use in the United Kingdom is set to increase significantly despite continued sustainability concerns
  • Current biofuel standards do not ensure biofuel use is sustainable
  • Biofuels are not a cost-effective means to reduce emissions from road transport

Unless Chatham House or some other body can come up with a clear and effective strategy for substantially reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector, or unless humans decide to stop moving themselves and their freight around the country and around the world, biofuels, though imperfect, may be one of the better things we can do to reduce GHG emissions in the transportation sector at the present time.

Chatham House has not been helpful either to the debate or to the development of low carbon transportation technology. You can find their opinion or, more correctly, their staff person’s opinion, at http://www.chathamhouse.org/publications/papers/view/190783

Safer Alternatives bill looks set for emergency implementation in Massachusetts

Massachusetts has been a leader in “Toxics Use Reduction” since 1989. Now a new state bill, wending its way as emergency legislation through the State Legislature, looks set to ramp up reductions in the use of certain toxic substances in many common household products. Designation of the bill as “emergency” seems to be a mechanism to win quick passage at a politically opportune time. Though having force only in the one state, there are few major manufacturers who will want to produce products for or two states so at least the entire US, and possibly the entire North American sub-continent, will benefit environmentally, though perhaps not so much in terms of the effectiveness or cost of products, from this legislation.

The Bill requires that the Toxics Use Reduction Institute at the University of Massachusetts produce, within 90 days of passage of the Act, a “chemicals of concern” list based on published authoritative lists of chemical categorizations such as, but not limited to, the Canadian Domestic Substances List Categorization, the European Commission’s list of substances of very high concern, Washington State’s list of Chemicals of Concern, the California Safer Consumer Products list of Chemicals of Concern, the State of Maine’s List of Chemicals of High Concern, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s list of carcinogens.

Criteria for listing such chemicals of concern shall include chemicals recognized as carcinogens, mutagens and reproductive toxins; chemicals recognized as persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic chemicals; chemicals recognized as very persistent and very bioaccumulative; chemicals recognized as endocrine disruptors; and other chemicals of equivalent concern as determined by the institute in consultation with the Science Advisory Board.

Industry will then be encouraged to make early substitution of less harmful alternatives. The program set up under the legislation will offer financial and technical assistance to industries to complete substitution plans. There will also be a program of public notification and labeling that is intended to discourage industry from using less safe ingredients in consumer products.

While still in draft, the huge level of support from the Mass Legislature for this Bill suggests that it, or something very similar, will likely become law in that state this year.

The Bill in its present draft is available at http://www.malegislature.gov/Bills/188/House/H235

Senator Ken Donnelly, one of the state senators who introduced the Bill, reports on its rapid legislative progress on his web site at http://www.kendonnelly.org/

Recycling of drinking water gains attention

There used to be a joke among men in the washroom of the bar that they were simply recycling the beer! Some presentations at the  Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management Annual Conference in London this week suggested that water recycling could become something much more than a joke.

All wastewater from Olympic Park, the site of the London 2012 Olympics, is recycled through a plant that the developer calls half sewage treatment plant, half drinking water treatment plant. The output water meets US Environmental Protection Agency standards for unrestricted use, including drinking water. However, due to UK regulations and anticipated public perceptions, the output water is used for irrigation of landscaping and for flushing of toilets at Olympic Park and is not used  as drinking water. In fact, distribution and control systems have been designed to ensure that there are no cross connections between the recycled water and municipal drinking water services.

The Olympic Park water recycling project, which was originally implemented to allow the Olympic Games to meet aggressive water conservation targets, shows that the costs of recycling water are substantially below the costs of desalinating seawater and that the operating costs of a water recycling plant can be essentially the same as the operating costs of a similar scale of conventional wastewater treatment and drinking water treatment plant.

Another speaker suggested that public attitudes would make it very difficult to implement recycling of wastewater into drinking water in the UK but that conversations with residents of water scarce areas may lead them to agree on this type of solution for themselves.

The type of technology used at Olympic Park, which includes bio and membrane filters,  activated carbon (subsequently found to be unnecessary), and chlorination, would also have application in food processing plants and other facilities which use large amounts of water and which are seeking to reduce their environmental footprint.

The Olympic Park facility is currently being expanded to deal with expanded quantities of wastewater from expanded post-Olympic use of the Park. As the presenter stated, it feels wrong to be using drinking water to flush toilets, so the water recycling plant can help address that aspect, even though the recycled water used for flushing does meet drinking water standards!

An excellent and easy to read paper on the Olympic Park water recycling plant can be found at http://learninglegacy.independent.gov.uk/publications/the-old-ford-water-recycling-plant-and-non-potable-water.php

UK water management conference sounds alarm bells

The annual conference of the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management opened this morning in London UK. CIWEM is an association of  professionals. Speakers at the conference come from government, private sector, academic and ngo sectors. Amazing to GallonDaily is the extent of extreme environmental alarmism expressed by most speakers, far greater than one typically hears at North American professional association conferences. Floods, drought, water quality, and climate change are all seen by most of the professionals who have spoken so far as major environmental and economic concerns. Among the comments from key speakers:

  • we are facing extremes of weather: it is just as likely that some imagined extreme event will happen as that it will not happen.
  • the past no longer provides a reasonable basis for projecting the future.
  • the water company supplying London recently touched on a Level 4 drought emergency. A Level 4 emergency is declared when London is down to a 30 day supply of water available in its reservoirs.
  • we all have to prepare to expect the unexpected.
  • one barrier to progress is that the water industry is dominated by engineers – we need more environmental economists involved in policy and program development.
  • too much of our planning is sectorized and plans are not sufficiently linked to achieve the integrated solutions that we need.
  • we must develop our society and our infrastructure in such a way that projects provide multiple environmental and economic benefits.
  • people and environmental professionals must Stay Angry (title of a Nick Cage movie) so as to get problems resolved.
  • we must ensure that every capital replacement project leads to reduced long-term costs and reduced carbon emissions.
  • we need to apply low asset solutions.
  • we must set tough carbon emission reduction targets on planners and supply chains.
  • we should help all users reduce their consumption of water and other resources.
  • reducing costs and reducing carbon emissions are complementary, not a trade off.
  • if a single large insurer decides to stop offering renewals to high flood risk properties, it could leave thousands of properties struggling to find a new insurer. This will compromise community resilience to flooding and lead to property blight.

CIWEM has stated that many of the slides present at this Annual Meeting will be made available online. GallonDaily will provide that link, and more analysis of the conference, in coming days.

This is an original GallonDaily report from the floor of the conference.

For those who find flying unsettling, scientists find that it may well get much worse

Research reported in the peer reviewed journal Nature Climate Change finds that transatlantic flights may well get much bumpier, and potentially less reliable in terms of on time performance, by 2050.

Scientists studying the phenomenon of clear air turbulence have found that atmospheric jet streams are likely to be strengthened by anthropogenic climate change.  At cruise altitudes corresponding to the North Atlantic most clear-air turbulence measures show a 10–40% increase in the median strength of turbulence and a 40–170% increase in the frequency of occurrence of moderate or greater turbulence when the concentration of carbon dioxide is doubled. These results suggest that climate change will lead to significantly more turbulence affecting transatlantic flights by the middle of this century. Journey times may lengthen and fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions from aircraft may increase as pilots attempt to respond to the strengthened jet streams. Incidents of damage to aircraft and passengers may also increase in frequency.

The article, abstract free, full article pay, is available at http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nclimate1866.html

Ontario Environment Minister Bradley angry at industry over stewardship fees

Ontario Environment Minister Jim Bradley told NewsTalk 610 CKTB radio in his hometown of St. Catharines last week that he will be introducing new legislation this Spring to force industry to include stewardship fees for recycling in the price of a product rather than having them added on at the cash register as some sectors, most notably consumer electronics and tires, have been doing.

This announcement comes in the face of a political fiasco caused by adjustments to stewardship fees implemented by the industry funding organization Waste Diversion Ontario. Some stewardship fees have increased very dramatically and the affected users are screaming at the government. This is not the first time this problem has arisen. Back in 2010 industry tried to impose ecofees on many household products, including such things as cleaning products, and the government slapped them down at considerable cost to the taxpayer. Industry seems not to understand that, by putting government in a political fix, government will fight back and eventually almost certainly win with measures that industry finds unpalatable. One could hear the anger in the usually mild-mannered Bradley’s voice as he discussed the stewardship fee issue with NewsTalk host Tim Denis last Friday.

The issue of whether stewardship fees should be added on at the cash register or embedded in the price of the product has been contentious ever since Ontario introduced the stewardship system to pay for recycling programs. Some observers have argued that simply passing stewardship fees on to the consumer removes the incentive for companies to reduce the cost of recycling their products. Although Ontario’s Waste Diversion Act provides industry with an opportunity to become more competitive with reduced or eliminated stewardship fees based on diversion of end-of-life goods to more cost effective reuse and recycling, few companies have taken advantage of the opportunity. Some companies have actively fought against competitive efforts to reduce costs through better product design and recycling.

Stewardship is a good idea but the Ontario system is seriously broken. Hopefully the new legislation will change things in such a way that provides industry with an incentive to divert end of life goods from landfill, to redesign products to make them easier to recycle, and to encourage development of a much larger Canadian materials recycling industry. Whatever the legislation contains one can be sure that costs to industry will rise.

To hear Minister Bradley’s comments, go to http://www.610cktb.com/multimedia/episodes.aspx?pid=1771 and click on the link: CKTB Roundtable Part One – April 5th, 2013

Energy efficiency in manufacturing: good news and not so good news

A newly published study from researchers from the  Environmentally Benign Manufacturing Group at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Cambridge, and Utrecht University reviews the opportunity for greatly increased energy efficiency in global manufacturing. The review includes production of five major materials: steel, cement, paper, plastics and aluminum. The benchmark objective was to reduce absolute material production energy by 50% while doubling production from the present to 2050. This is equivalent to a 75 per cent reduction in energy intensity by 2050 for each of the materials.

The study reviewed the energy efficiency opportunities arising from

  • widespread application of best available technology (BAT)
  • BAT to cutting-edge technologies
  • aggressive recycling, and
  • significant improvements in recycling technologies.

Of particular interest to GallonDaily are the significant energy efficiency opportunities associated with aggressive recycling and improvements in recycling technologies for most of the materials.

The research found that the best that could be obtained using these four approaches together would be of the order of 50% reduction in energy intensity, a massive saving of energy use but still short of IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) targets for greenhouse gas emission reduction. The limitations stem from thermodynamic (ie scientific) as well as practical limitations.

The study proposes that the only way we might achieve a 75% reduction in the energy efficiency of manufacturing is to apply new materials and new technologies to reduce the total amount of material used to produce manufactured goods.

The study is published in the peer reviewed mathematical, physical and engineering sciences journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A. An abstract (free) and the full article (pay or subscription) is available at http://rsta.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/371/1986/20120003.abstract?sid=228f40b1-900d-4329-b6e9-8c8573dd6581#aff-3

Charcoal can help reduce agricultural GHG emissions and be a source of renewable energy

A new study has shown that adding charcoal (biochar) to agricultural soils growing the perennial grass and biomass fuel Miscanthus can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from those soils. Biochar is the word used to describe charcoal from current biological resources (trees and plants) when it is used for amending soils. Historically grassland and forest fires have added large quantities of biochar to soils but modern agricultural practices have since reduced the amount of charcoal that finds its way into soils.

The study, reported by UK scientists in the journal Global Change Biology – Bioenergy,  claims to be the first field study to demonstrate significant carbon dioxide emission reductions from addition of biochar to soils where bioenergy crops are being grown. The numbers, from this admittedly limited study, are quite dramatic: biochar amendment suppressed soil CO2 emissions by 33% and annual net soil CO2 equivalent (eq.) emissions (CO2, N2O and methane, CH4) by 37% over 2 years.

There is still much work to be done on Lifecycle Analysis (LCA) of biochar production and use. For example, traditional methods of producing charcoal discharge large quantities of greenhouse gases and air pollutants but modern technologies using gasification, energy recovery and pollution controls with fuels such as purpose grown biomass and carbon-based wastes should improve the carbon footprint of biochar use very significantly.  A number of companies are exploring the potential for production and sale of biochar for agricultural use.

If further field research continues to show positive LCAs for biochar production and soil amendment, opportunities for use of biomass as a renewable fuel are likely to increase. Energy from the sun grows the plants, we use the plants for energy and retain, rather than burn, much of the charcoal, and the charcoal goes back into the soil to sequester more carbon dioxide and to help grow more crops. Biochar also helps to retain moisture in soil. Its use in agriculture has the potential to provide a big environmental benefit compared to the methods that have led to massive depletion of the carbon content of soils since European-style agriculture began in Canada.

It is early days yet but capital investments in thermal energy systems are made for the long term. Companies that burn fuels for energy may well benefit from monitoring developments in the biomass fuel area. Agricultural operators may gain in future years from application of biochar to their fields.

The new research can be found at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcbb.12052/abstract  Abstract is free; full article requires a subscription or payment.

There is lots of interesting information about biochar at the International Biochar Initiative at http://www.biochar-international.org/ Enter gardening in the search box to find ideas for use of biochar in gardening.

US opinion poll shows environmental concern is holding

In recent months some major Canadian pollsters have reported dramatic declines in environmentally supportive public opinion. At the same time, public opinion polls in the US have shown that public opinion in support of a cleaner environment is holding or rising slightly. GallonDaily surmises that it is unlikely that Canadian and US public opinion are tracking in such different directions.

The most recent US environmental poll was published this week by Gallup, Inc.  Based on interviews conducted  March 7-10, 2013, Gallup states that

Americans tilt toward the view that the government is doing too little to protect the environment — at 47% — while 16% say it is doing too much. Another 35% say the government’s efforts on the environment are about right. These views have not changed much since 2010.

More detailed results, including an analysis by political affiliation (Democrat or Republican) are available at http://www.gallup.com/poll/161579/nearly-half-say-gov-environmental-efforts-lacking.aspx

BC auditor general slams government for phoney carbon offsets

In a report issued last month the Auditor General of the province of British Columbia slammed the government for claiming carbon credits for projects that would have happened without funding from the provincial carbon fund. The audit examined two projects which accounted for nearly 70 percent of the offsets purchased by government to achieve their claim of carbon neutrality: the Darkwoods Forest Carbon project in southeastern B.C. and the Encana Underbalanced Drilling project near Fort Nelson.

Encana’s project was projected to be more financially beneficial to the company than its previous practices, regardless of offset revenue, while the Darkwoods property was acquired without offsets being a critical factor in the decision. In a press release the auditor is quoted as saying “In industry terms, these projects would be known as ‘free riders’. Together, they received $6 million in revenue for something that would have happened anyway.”

Since early in the development of the concept of carbon offsets, popularly known as carbon credits, it has been widely understood that credits are generated only when the activity which generates the credits is ‘additional’ to what would happen in the normal course, known as ‘business as usual’. The BC auditor general clearly believes that the two projects he has audited were part of ‘business as usual’ and would have happened whether or not financing from carbon credits was available. In other words, the people of BC are paying a carbon tax to have GHG emissions reduced but the money is going to projects that would have happened whether or not the carbon tax were in place.

Phoney carbon credits and GHG emission reductions that do not involve efforts that go above and beyond business as usual are becoming more comm0n in government and business marketing. Determination of ‘additionality’ is a complex blend of science and economics.  The blast sent by the BC Auditor General should serve as a warming to all governments and businesses that make GHG emission reduction claims to ensure that the claim properly meets all of the tests required for high quality carbon credits.

The BC Auditor General’s report is in part a quick primer in what can go wrong with carbon offset claims. You can find it at http://www.bcauditor.com/pubs/2013/report14/audit-carbon-neutral-government

A quick note to companies with operations in Ontario, Canada: the carbon content of electricity in Ontario is currently falling fast as a result of the Ontario Government’s decision to phase out coal-fired electricity. The credit for this activity belongs to Ontario Power Generation which is owned 100% by the Province of Ontario. Companies that claim to have reduced their carbon emissions because of the reduced carbon intensity of electricity purchased from the provincial grid will, in GallonDaily’s opinion, be making an improper environmental claim. Companies that purchase power from specified renewable sources will still be entitled to make a legitimate reduced GHG claim based on the difference between the GHG emissions from the renewable power and the grid power. The size of the legitimate reduced GHG claim, per unit of electricity consumed, will likely decrease as the amount of fossil generated electricity in the Ontario grid decreases. All electricity generation has environmental impacts: no consumer should view the reduced carbon intensity of Ontario electricity as environmental permission to use more electricity.