Friday, December 16, 2011

COP-17 -- good news, bad news

Well, COP-17 meeting in Durban, S. Africa has just been completed with some good news and some bad news. Here is my take on the meeting.

The good news is they agreed to something (well almost -- Canada are acting as arrogant and selfish (1)), especially since little was expected from them. They basically agreed to begin negotiations on a legally binding (2) replacement treaty next year, with these negotiations ending in 2015 and provisions becoming due in 2020.

The fact that they agreed to a legally binding treaty (versus a voluntary one) is good; however, without an enforcement mechanism they do not have any real bite. For example, Kyoto is legally binding, but that did not prevent countries from completely ignoring it.

The biggest problem with the whole agreement is that it does not actually do anything. It will not reduce carbon dioxide (or any other greenhouse gases) for at least another nine years, when the problem needs urgent action. Remember that Kyoto ends in one year, we therefore will have no treaty at all for eight years.

A lot has been said about the Global Climate Fund, but that is really a lot about nothing. The Fund had already been agreed to last year and no agreement has been made on how to fund it. Considering their poor record on humanitarian aid, I do not have much hope.

The BBC has has good coverage of the meeting. The results are given in this article and here is reaction to it. See their other articles for more information.

A more technical description of the agreement can be found here.


(1) This is toned down, my actual thoughts are not publishable :).

(2) Actually, they could be with "legal force" - but nobody knows what that means

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Nuclear Lies

Once in a while you find another blog which says exactly what you think. That is what I find with Greg Laden's recently blog Japan Nuclear Disaster Update # 40: Fukushima Plant is Still Producing Energy! (In a bad way).

The blog points out how the Nuclear Industry* continues to do an injustice to the truth, including changing definitions when it benefits them. One of the major reasons I oppose nuclear energy is for exactly that reason - the nuclear industry continues to mislead the public about itself.

Another interesting thing in the news items given in the blog is the request by TEPCO (the operator of Fukushima) for 12 billion US dollars from the government for business losses. Sorry, but I am sick and tired of business saying that they want no government interference and then go crying to that same government for money because that cannot manage their own risks. You cannot have the cake and eat it too.

*Note: the capitalization here is intentional.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Thailand's Massive Floods

Thailand has been in the grips of a major flood, the worst it has seen in twenty years -- some say ever. But why has it happened and what has been the response?

First a little geography. The water from all of the Center and North (but not the Northeast) drains down the Chao Praya River, eventually funneling through Bangkok.

Of course, the immediate cause was a unusually large amount of rainfall in September (about twice the normal). And yes, it was magnified by lost of native forests. But the real tragedy was the lack of preparedness.

As in the field of safety, in disasters you must be ready before the disaster occurs. After it happens, there is simply to little time to react.

Amazingly, Thailand (and especially Bangkok) were not prepared. When the flooding started everybody in the government went into panic mode. Different agencies had different ideas, and politicians had their own ideas which were different still. It ended up with not much of anything happenning. Of course, the water did not care, it just kept flowing.

The government set up the Flood Response Operation Centre, composed of ministers with no experience in engineering, hydrology, etc. What you had was politicians telling experts what to do (instead of the other way around).

Thailand firstly should of had a clear command structure. The should of been a emergency plan that was enacted as soon as the situation became clear. This would include having procedures in place, such as what gates to open/close, where the water is directed to, etc.

The second part of the problem has been lack of zoning. A big issue is the flooding of some industrial estates. But many of these were told by the Royal Irrigation Department not to build in the areas they are now located. (And even more amazing is that the insurance companies did not tell them the same thing). And now the government is going to give these same companies a large amount of money for the loss of revenue due to the flood.

Why was this condition allowed to happen? To begin with politicians seem to only care about keeping power and with some mundane things.

Second is denial. It could never happen! That was exactly the attitude we saw before the tsunami happened in 2004. This is despite the fact that Thailand gets a lot of rain.

Lastly, the push for "economic growth" has encouraged businesses to do whatever they want. The government set up industrial estates with incentives to encourage businesses to move there. But as mentioned above, many of these were placed in areas susceptible to flooding. The environmental impact assessments are for individual companies and ignore the overall factors such as flooding.

These factors have led to little planning for such a massive disaster, and what little planning has been done is piecemeal and completely inadequate.

But the real losers are the people, especially those outside Bangkok. They have been promised very little government help when compared to the millions being already promised to businesses.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Corporate Social Responsibility is by any other name ...

A number of articles in the last month question the whole idea of corporate social responsibility (CSR).

The first, and biggest, of these was the extremely damning report by the UN on the oil industry and its environmental impacts on the Niger River delta in Nigeria. The report stated that "oil contamination in Ogoniland is widespread and severely impacting many components of the environment"(Executive Summary, p.9).(A long report, but read at least the executive summary -- it is fascinating)

Probably the biggest thing the report leads to is the Shell company's role in the whole mess. Shell has for a long time claimed that it has always acted responsibly in the Niger Delta (and elsewhere). Finally we now see that this was nothing more than propaganda.

Then I saw the report a few days ago that ExxonMobil was fined $126,000 by the US Occupational Health and Safety Agency for safety violations at an oil refinery. This is a company which has an annual profit of $40 billion (and yet pays no corporate tax). In other words the fine was the amount of profit made by Exxon every two minutes. And this is the company which supports climate change deniers by the millions (dollars that is).

Now the news is that the company behind the red sludge disaster in Hungary has been told by the Hungarian government that it will not be allowed to go under.

I will give two other examples. The Register has an interesting series about overpackaging. Giving a number of examples and ending up calling HP the world champion at overpackaging (The Register is an on-line IT magazine). It then notes that HP was given an Australian award as a good packager!

Finally, the example that pisses me off the most (well, after Shell that is). It is Chevron's ads about how it is socially responsible. Yet this is the same company who was sued by the government of Ecuador for leaving a mess in the Amazon and refuses to accept responsibility.

To be honest I am getting sick and tired of the bullshit of "corporate social responsibility" (aka CSR). It has become a meaningless phrase which is used only to make the company look better.

Update (16 Nov.): There is a new Amnesty International report about the Shell oil spills in the Niger Delta. Shell still shows denial.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Wrong model for vaccinations?

There have been a number of articles recently about vaccination. In particular, the Global Alliance for Vaccinations and Immunization (GAVI), which just raised US$4.3 billion for Vaccines worldwide. It is noted especially because a big sponsor of GAVI is Bill Gates.

This was hot news at the time (see this for example), being covered in all the major media. But in fact there has been much criticism of the GAVI approach. Of course this has not been covered in the media (see my previous article), but the critics raise some very important issues. Here are two articles:

Under fire: critics challenge GAVI's vaccine spending practices

Make vaccines for Africa in Africa, GAVI told

The first one raises some very important points. The model as I understand it (it is very hard to find precise information even on the GAVI site) is that GAVI gives money to pharmaceutical companies to buy vaccines. Countries then have to pay a small fee to GAVI to use those vaccines.

The first problem is that the pharmaceutical companies which are paid by GAVI are also on the board of GAVI (can you say corruption).

The second problem is a lack of health infrastructure (such as clinics or vaccination teams) in many countries. So even if they have the vaccines, they do not get to the people who need them. Which further means that money is wasted or the vaccines are allowed to deteriorate and become ineffective.

In other words the GAVI model is wrong.

GAVI was supposed to have reduced vaccine prices. Not only has it not done that, but each year the amount of money needed by GAVI has increased.

Of course, this is not surprising considered the interest which the pharmaceutical companies have -- increasing profits.

Another related issue is that almost none of the vaccines are produced in Africa, the very place where they are the most needed. Not only would this help the economy of the local areas, but the vaccines would have less spoilage and wastage. The stance often taken by companies on "intellectual property" is simply unacceptable.

In summary, what should be done should be dictated by the health professionals and those who would receive the money, not by big business and wealthy donors.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Out of the Media Spotlight

A couple of articles caught my attention recently, but not for their direct content.

The first article was about the recent earthquake in Northeast Burma (Shan State), the other was an update on the toxic mud flow that occurred in Hungary about six months ago.

What is common about both of these is that they are out of the media spotlight. The Burmese earthquake was mentioned the first day it happened and then was forgotten while the world continued to focus on Japan. The Hungarian disaster was news at the time, but there has been almost no news since then.

It is interesting that in the age of the internet, blogs, tweets, blackberries, and smartphones - what is important is still dictated by the media.

The question is: what does this mean for the environment?

If we consider that there are very many environmental issues, some topics will be either neglected or only occassionally addressed. Where this manifests itself the most is in the political arena where often the issued addressed by politicians are those which are most in the public eye and of interest to their contributors.

Their also seems to be a bias in the media toward business/economics reporting. Everyday there seems to be a new program on business, yet there are few programs dedicated to the environment.

Science reporting by the mainstream media is poor (and sometimes completely wrong). This often results in incorrect perceptions about the environment (and other science issues).

Luckily, There are a number of excellent and very up-to-date websites scientists and environmental specialists.

There is a lot of information on the environment available, but it is often not available in the mainstream media. Look at the links on the right hand side of this blog for some of them.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Nuclear Reactors in Asia Revisted

With all the talk about the nuclear reactor problems in Japan,
I would like to give an updated version of an earlier article. The original article is here.

Japan is having many problems today with a certain nuclear power plant. BBC's reporting has been the best, you can find their reports on their Japan Earthquake page. But this is not the first time, even though it is by far the most severe. Look at this report on another incident in 2007 on a research reactor. And this was just after problems with a nuclear plant after a much smaller earthquake.

What has disturbed me the most is how the industry (specifically TEPCO - the owner of the Fukushima plant) has been sparing with the truth. After the original report of damage, they said that everything was under control. Then a reactor building had an explosion. Then they said yes, there was a problem but the other reactors were under control. Then we had a second explosion. Etcetera, etceteria. They simply have lost the trust of the people.

And this problem has been shown with the nuclear industry worldwide - not just in Japan.

This leads to the question of about the use of nuclear energy in Asia.

There are two issues which must be looked at safety and nuclear waste.

There have been safety/environmental problems not only Japan, but in Britain, US, Ukraine (Chernobyl), etc.

Thailand, my home, has in recent years pushed the idea of a nuclear energy reactor. Yet this is the same country that recently could not get a new research reactor, because the design was refused certification by international bodies. I also heard many years ago the then head of the Office of Atomic Energy for Peace say that we do not need to worry about nuclear waste because it degrades in about 10 years! Thailand also had a major scare when recyclers opened a canister of radioactive cobalt-60, a gamma emmitter, which had been thown away in the regular trash by a hospital.

The question is if countries such as UK and Japan cannot insure safe operation of nuclear power plants, how can countries with poor environmental and safety regulations cope.

The other issue is storage of radioactive waste. There is no safe storage method for it. (Yes, the nuclear industry says we can bury it under ground. But they have been saying that for 30 years and have yet to dispose of any waste). Considering this and the fact that Thailand and many other countries have almost no capacity for handling non-radioactive hazardous waste, what are they going to do? It is interesting that this has not been discussed at all.

No, nuclear energy is not necessary to save the Earth. The risks are too great and I think Asia (and the rest of the world) should avoid nuclear energy and get more sustainable energy alternatives.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Real Cost of Doing Business

The other day I went to what is called the "Mall" on campus - it is mostly restaurants. After I got there I noticed that there the pest control company that was spraying pesticide. And in one place, just outside a restaurant door one worker had spilt some pesticide and basically ignoring the spill. I decided not to eat supper there and left going around the outside. When leaving outside, near the back, I noticed the smell of rotten garbage.

Two things immediately came into my head. First was if they would simply clean the area outside, they probably wouldn't need to use pesticide. The second, which is the thrust of this article, is that this was a perfect example of how today's economics is bad for the environment.

What I am talking about is the fact that actually hiring a company to spray potentially toxic chemicals (pesticides) instead of using preventive measures (keeping the area clean) is better for the economy. At least using the current methods we use to measure it. That is, we mesure the output (goods and services) and not the costs.

To reinforce this idea, last month there was a report which said if we take the real costs of coal in terms of health, environment, and economics that the price of coal would be two to three times what is today.

As I hinted to in the previous article, I truly believe that we cannot solve our global warming problems without some radical changes. Changing the measurement of our national accounts would be a start.

I asked my students about which solution the would do for global warming (nothing, more research, preemptive action, or radical change). All of those who picked radical change said changes such as more renewable energy -- not what I call radical (important, but not radical). I wonder if this is due to the onslaught of propaganda from the big business/neo-liberal lobby.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

I must have my oil!

First of all I am back on this blog after a hiatus (new job, etc.).

If you are students of my Science Man classes please also see the miniblog here. There you will find short entries on recent news stories. This site is has longer articles with more emphasis on opinions.

In the last month surely the biggest topic in the news (outside of the fascinating events in the Middle East) is energy.

The most interesting stuff has had to do with the BP oil spill (remember that :)). This week comes the news that leftover from the spill is a layer, in some places 10 cm thick of oil and dead organisms on the bottom of the sea. Actually this is not surprising to me as I remember after the Amoco Cadiz oil tanker accident they also found oil embedded in the sediment five years after the spill. So much for these experts who say "most of the oil not coming ashore will evaporate".

Then we have the damning report from the US commission looking into the BP oil spill. Citing "bad management" as a problem, they pointed out how the companies cut costs and put the issues of safety at a lower level.

Even more interesting is the UK report on the same oil spill. It concludes although it accepts that there are problems, no additional measures should be taken as the oil industry is too important. Can everybody say "corporatocracy".

After the oil spill BP has said that they will be more responsible in the future. Then this last weekend we find out that they and their Russian partner will drill for oil in three blocks in the Arctic -- two of which are in National Parks! Note that oil spills in the Arctic are much more a threat than in waters such as the Gulf of Mexico.

And then there are the greenwashing ads by Chevron claiming that they support renewable energy, small business, etc. Yet they just lost a case in Ecuador where they were found guilty of environmental negligence and fined. The instance, resulting from faulty drilling practices (on-land), including dumping of oil contaminated wastewater. The site was owned at the time by Texaco, which Chevron later bought out. So much for corporate responsibility.

The upshot of these and other energy reports recently is that while we are moving forward on renewable energy, the push for more oil is still going on and the oil companies still control the energy future.

Maybe what is needed in a revolution of the magnitude of the one Egypt just had in order to change our energy usage (both in amount and in type of source).

(Another interesting fact: the largest per capita energy users are not in the US, Europe, or even China. They are in the Middle East -- mainly the Gulf states!)