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Clean Energy Caught in the Crossfire
The desert nation of Morocco has big hopes to become a major exporter of renewable solar energy to Europe. But its aspirations are being clouded by a long-running geopolitical dispute over the contested territory of Western Sahara.
In 2009, Moroccan lawmakers drew up a renewable energy law to attract foreign investors interested in tapping into the country’s prodigious amounts of sunlight. The centerpiece of the plan is a $9 billion solar project that could be generating 4 gigawatts of electricity by 2020, much of which would be sold to Europe. The scheme calls for building five solar power plants, including two in Western Sahara.
There’s just one problem: Morocco’s claims over Western Sahara are contested. The Algeria-backed Polisario Front has been seeking independence since Morocco claimed control over much of the sparsely populated region in 1975. United Nations’ efforts at brokering a settlement have gone nowhere. And tensions in the region heated up last year after Algerian leaders complained about human rights abuses by the Moroccan government. Amnesty International has accused Morocco of using excessive force against pro-independence activists and of repressing political freedoms in the contested area.
European lenders may be eager for the carbon-free energy they could be getting from North Africa, but they’re leery of getting involved in the longstanding geopolitical dispute. Some have threatened to pull their funding. The German state-owned bank KFW, the World Bank, and the European Investment Bank have all said they will not fund projects in Western Sahara.
“We have never supported a project in that territory,” says one banking official. “And we won’t, although the Moroccan solar plant means a lot to us.”
Another senior banking official, who asked for anonymity, says: “If we support those investments, it would be like we are supporting the Moroccan position. We are neutral regarding that conflict.”
Moroccan officials brushed off such comments. They say the development plans haven’t been finalized. “In the initial plan, three solar power plants of the five are based in the southern provinces [Western Sahara], but we have not decided all of those areas yet,” says Abdelkader Amara, minister of mines and energy. “If those institutions say they will not fund them, we will see at the time.”
Insiders say that Morocco might just pursue funding from other sources. The most likely candidates would be the wealthy Gulf states that are already heavily invested there. “I don’t see why we couldn’t get the financing needed for those solar power projects,” Amara says.
Shoot to Save?
The would-be hunter is now feeling hunted. A Texas man who paid $350,000 for the right to hunt an endangered African black rhinoceros in Namibia says he’s fearful for his own safety. Corey Knowlton, a Dallas-based hunting consultant, says that after being revealed as the winner of a controversial Dallas Safari Club auction in January, he has received death threats – so many that local law enforcement officials and the FBI are working to keep him and his family safe.
The Safari Club, which auctioned the permit in mid-January amid protests from many animal rights groups, says the auction was done to save the threatened species. All proceeds will be donated to the Namibian government, from whom the club originally obtained the permit, and will be earmarked for conservation efforts. “This is the best way to have the biggest impact on increasing the black rhino population,” says Ben Carter, executive director of the Dallas Safari Club.
Knowlton, too, says his goal is to help save the black rhino. He says he will be targeting an aggressive older male that is terrorizing the rest of the herd, and would already be a target. “I’m a hunter. I want to experience a black rhino,” says the man who has hunted more than 120 species on almost every continent. “I want to be intimately involved with a black rhino. If I go over there and shoot it or not shoot it is beyond the point.” The death of this black rhino, Knowlton says, is inevitable: “They are going to shoot those black rhinos, period. End of story.”
The auction has sparked a contentious debate among animal rights and conservation groups over the best way to protect the black rhinoceros, which has been brought to the edge of extinction because of the market for its horn, which is used for ornaments and traditional Asian medicine. There are only about 5,000 black rhinos in the world, 1,700 of which are in Namibia. They are considered a “critically endangered species.”
The International Union for Conservation of Nature supported the permit auction, saying this kind of conservation strategy is based on smart science. The organization says “trophy hunting is a fundamental pillar of Namibia’s conservation approach and instrumental in its success,” and that “well-managed recreational hunting and trophy hunting” have had a positive impact in “stimulating population increases for rhino.”
But other organizations say sacrificing one animal for the greater good of the endangered species is a “perverse” move and a “sad joke.”
“They need to be protected, not sold to the highest bidder,” says Jeffrey Flocken of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. “It also sends a dangerous message that these iconic and disappearing animals are worth more as dead trophies to be mounted and hung on a wall in a Texas mansion than living in the wild in Africa.” The better focus, critics of the hunt say, would be eco-tourism – raising money from people willing to pay to see endangered animals in the wild.
—Associated Press, 01/13; CNN, 01/13
A Crushing Blow
The government of the world’s biggest market for ivory may finally be getting serious about cracking down on illegal ivory trading. In January, the Chinese government crushed 6.8 tons of ivory in a highly publicized demonstration. The public crushing was the first such event in China; similar events have been organized in the United States, the Philippines, France, Kenya, and Gabon. Hong Kong incinerated tons of ivory in January.
During the event in China, elephant tusks and ivory statues were passed through an industrial crusher. The ceremony was attended by representatives of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) as well as by representatives from several source countries, including Kenya, Gabon, and Tanzania.
Ivory has a long history in China, dating back almost 5,000 years. It is prized for use in art, and also plays a role in traditional Chinese medicine. According to wildlife groups, China is home to the world’s biggest ivory market. About 70 percent of illegal ivory ends up there.
“There is an increasing trend of ivory being smuggled to China,” says Yang Liuying, an anti-smuggling researcher for the Chinese customs department. “I can say that there is a 10 percent increase every year.”
Conservation groups say the voracious demand for ivory in China is driving poaching in Africa. In 2012, an estimated 96 elephants were poached each day, with 22,000 killed during the course of the year. A record 25,000 elephants were killed in 2011.
Several wildlife groups commended China for making a strong statement against poaching. “This is a courageous and critical first step by China to elevate the important issue of wildlife trafficking and elephant poaching among its citizens and around the world,” says Patrick Bergin, chief executive of the African Wildlife Foundation.
“We congratulate China’s government for showing the world that elephant poaching and illegal ivory consumption is unacceptable,” echoes Cristián Samper, President and CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Society. “We are hopeful that this gesture shows that we can win the war against poaching and that elephants will once again flourish.”
Other environmentalists, however, point out that destruction of illegal ivory could have the unintended effect of driving up ivory prices and further incentivizing poachers.
International trade in ivory has been illegal since 1990, when a ban was implemented under CITES. In 2008, however, China received an exemption from CITES to import 62 tons of ivory from Africa. Each year, a portion of this ivory is released to ivory carving factories sanctioned by the Chinese government. Similar trade exemptions have been made for Japan.
China has said it will impose harsh sentences on illegal ivory smugglers. Domestic sale of ivory, however, remains legal, leaving room for trafficked ivory to infiltrate the legal market.
—The Guardian, 1/6; Reuters, 1/6
China has a smog problem and it’s getting worse by the day. In January, apocalyptic scenes of dense haze forced major cities including Shanghai and Harbin to virtually shut down. In Beijing, pollution readings went literally off the charts, clocking a reading of 775 on the Air Quality Index. The index, based on the US EPA’s air quality standards, maxes out at 500.
Chinese officials are well aware that heavy industries, especially around Beijing, are responsible for much of the air pollution. But instead of immediately cracking down on the factories, the state chose a smaller target – barbecue grills!
In November Chinese officials destroyed 500 “illegal” outdoor barbecue grills in Beijing as part of a new emergency response program to alleviate the city’s air pollution. The raids were part of a three-month operation to supervise the barbecues, many of which are operated by ethnic Uighur Muslims from the restive Xinjiang province in China’s west.
The emergency response program was set up in September following continuing negative reports about Beijing’s bad air that caused the ruling Communist Party much embarrassment. The program includes regulations for alternating driving days based on odd and even license plate numbers, closing schools when the smog is particularly heavy, and limiting coal use. To be fair, the program also requires the Beijing-Tianjan-Hebei area, where most of the industries are located, to cut concentrations of fine particulate matter by 25 percent by 2017. But given that China’s economy is heavily dependent on coal and given the many powerful interests involved, the barbecues clearly offered officials the chance to show that they were taking action to curb the bad air without stepping on any big toes.
Meanwhile, the country continues to consider other creative and sometimes wacky solutions to dispel the smog. There’s been talk of washing away air pollution with artificial rain or sucking it up with giant vacuum cleaners. Shanghai has given its cops mini-filters to put in their noses. And private tinkerers are producing all sorts of anti-pollution devices, from amateur air filters to a bicycle that purifies air as you pedal.
—The Washington Post, 1/14; Reuters, 11/13;
Neonicotinoids Knocked Again
In 2012 we learned that a class of relatively new, nicotine-derived pesticides called neonicotinoids are linked to honeybee die-offs across the world. Now, European food safety experts are saying that two such pesticides may also affect human health and harm the brain development of unborn babies.
Scientists at the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) have called for further limits on human exposure to the two chemicals, which are designed to attack the nervous system of insects. An EFSA statement released in December said experts had found that the pesticides “may adversely affect the development of neurons and brain structures associated with functions such as learning and memory” in humans and that “some current guidance levels for acceptable exposure may not be protective enough to safeguard against developmental neurotoxicity and should be reduced.”
EFSA cited a 2012 paper by a Tokyo-based team as shaping its thinking. That paper, published in PLOS ONE by Junko Kimura-Kuroda of the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Medical Science, found that one of the pesticides, imidacloprid – an insecticide widely used in agricultural and consumer goods – was associated with brain shrinkage and reduced activity in nerve signals in newborn rats. The other, acetamiprid, led to reduced weight and reaction times. EFSA said more work was needed to assess the risk to human health posed by neonicotinoids, but added that health concerns are legitimate.
Imidacloprid is among the three neonicotinoids that the European Union placed a temporary ban on in 2012 because of concerns they are harming pollinators. The other two are clothianidin and thiametoxam.
Pesticide companies are challenging the ban in court. Both imidacloprid and acetamiprid are produced by Bayer Cropscience.
“We are surprised that EFSA has taken a decision to recommend changes to the regulatory assessment of imidacloprid based on a set of simple cell culture experiments, when they had previously informed their views on this compound based on more realistic and comprehensive studies that had been submitted and accepted by EFSA,” a Bayer spokesman says.
The US EPA has refused to ban neonicotinoids, saying this class of pesticides is just one of many factors contributing to declining bee numbers. Last summer, the Department of Agriculture and the EPA released a report that concluded a host of other factors – including the parasitic varroa mite, bacteria, poor nutrition, and genetics – were to blame for the decline. EPA officials have indicated that a new review of the pesticides could take up to five years to complete.
US environmentalists say the new determination in the EU heightens the call to ban the use of neonicotinoids in the United States. “EFSA’s concern over the neurotoxicity of neonics is a reminder that there’s a great deal we don’t know about these systemic chemicals,” says Lex Horan, the midwest organizer for Pesticide Action Network. “They were hurried through EPA’s regulatory process with ‘conditional registrations,’ and scientific research continues to reveal more about their harmful effects – on pollinators and beyond.”
—The Independent, 12/13; Nature, 12/17; Pesticide Action Network
Environmentalists are cheering a decision by authorities in the whaling nation of Iceland to ban a local beer containing “whale meal,” a byproduct of reducing whale meat and bones to oil.
Stedji, a small Icelandic brewery, had partnered with the whaling company Hvalur to create a beer that would have the flavors of “something ethnic,” in the words of brewmaster Dagbjartur Ariliusson. The beer was supposed to be sold at a midwinter festival in the island nation. Ariliusson described the brew as “dark, with a rich taste, and you can feel the whale taste in the undertone and the aftertaste.”
Marine mammal defenders, naturally, were not amused, and had pushed the government to stop sales of the beer. In mid-January, Icelandic officials did just that after local health inspectors ruled that the beer did not fulfill food production regulations. “Hvalur does not have permission to produce [whale] meal for food production, so we had to put a stop to this,” says health official Helgi Helgason.
Brewer Ariliusson expressed disappointment, saying that the whale beer had passed all food safety requirements, but said he would respect the government decree. “If this is the final decision, then of course we will have to obey,” Ariliusson says.
According to environmental activists, the whale beer was part of a larger attempt to spark new markets for whale meat, which is becoming less popular with younger consumers. “The lack of demand in Iceland and also Japan means that the whalers are resorting to finding new markets for their meat,” says Danny Groves of the group Whale and Dolphin Conservation. “Beer is just another example of this approach.”
The wind blows strong off the British Isles, but, as utility companies are learning, that doesn’t mean this immense energy resource can be harnessed easily.
In December, ScottishPower became the second utility in recent months to scrap plans for a wind farm in the United Kingdom, dealing a blow to the government’s hopes to develop a vast offshore wind industry.
The company, a subsidiary of Spanish utility Iberdrola, shelved its $7.4 billion wind farm project off the west coast of Scotland, saying the seabed was too hard, the waves were too big, and that it had discovered hundreds of basking sharks in the area.
The “Argyll Array” had been in planning since 2009 and would have involved as many as 300 turbines, each up to 662 feet tall, to the west of the island of Tiree. It could have generated power for up to one million households, but it faced fierce opposition from local campaigners who warned it would be an “environmental disaster.”
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds had warned that it would be “challenging to deliver a development on this site that does not cause significant environmental impacts.” The site, RSPB says, is internationally important for a range of marine wildlife. In particular, very large numbers of great northern diver and basking sharks use the site and could have been affected by the development. Basking sharks, a protected species, were known to be present in the region, but ScottishPower encountered hundreds of the sharks – far more than expected. Rare birds such as the corncrake and Greenland white-fronted goose also make their home on the island each year and fly across the proposed wind farm site on their annual migration.
ScottishPower’s decision came just weeks after Germany company RWE announced it was pulling the plug on the $6.5 billion project in the Bristol Channel because of “technical challenges” and spiraling costs. Another company, Centrica, one of Britain’s biggest energy suppliers, is preparing to abandon a $3.2 billion wind farm project off the Norfolk coast because of insufficient government subsidies.
The UK is the world’s biggest offshore wind market. It has 22 offshore wind farms in operation, supplying power for 2.5 million homes; another 24 farms are either being built or in the planning process. The nation aims to multiply its current capacity by nearly five times, to 18 gigawatts, by the end of the decade.
But offshore wind farms, which are built far out at sea, are some of the most expensive renewable energy projects, and policy uncertainty and political rows about energy company profits have companies like RWE and ScottishPower warning that investing in the British Isles is becoming less attractive.
—The Telegraph, 12/13; Reuters, 12/13
Troops Against Trash
In Naples, Italy, and the surrounding countryside, citizens are building a grassroots movement to stop the mafia’s illegal dumping and burning of hazardous waste, and they are beginning to receive support from some powerful forces: the Italian military and the Catholic Church.
For at least 20 years the Camorra mafia has been dumping, burying, and sometimes burning toxic waste in the area between Naples and the province of Caserta. Much of the waste comes from more industrialized northern Italy. Mafia gangs make money by dumping the waste in the countryside, usually under the cover of night, for a fraction of the cost of legal disposal.
The smoke-choked area north of Naples has been dubbed the “Triangle of Death.” Hidden out of sight down dirt roads, vast mounts of hazardous garbage – car tires, broken sheets of asbestos, and containers of paint and solvent – lie rotting next to farm fields. Some nuclear waste from Germany may even be buried there. Sometimes the rubbish piles are set on fire, sending billows of black fumes toward the neighboring towns.
According to the Italian environmental group Legambiente, an estimated 10 million tons of garbage have been dumped in the area. The waste piles have leaked arsenic, chloroform, and heavy metals into the area’s aquifer, and have contributed to a rash of congenital abnormalities and deaths from cancer, according to the World Health Organization. Environmental groups say the toxic garbage could be affecting one and a half million people in the Naples and Caserta provinces.
In recent months, residents of the region have launched an effort demanding that the government clean up the area. People have taken to the streets of Naples to protest the dumping and have banded together on social media to document episodes of waste dumping.
At first the government responded by issuing a decree against trash burning. Residents complained that more had to be done, and soon their appeals were echoed by the politically influential Catholic Church. In a January letter, the Archbishop of Naples wrote to Italy’s president, Giorgio Napolitano, calling for action. “The environmental disaster… has turned into a real humanitarian tragedy,” the archbishop wrote. “Too many are paying the price for the arrogance, abuse, incivility, greed, and stupidity of criminals.”
The letter worked. Less than two weeks later, the Italian government agreed to send in the army to fight the Mafioso. That’s a good first step. Environmental groups say a wider response should include health screening, financial support for those affected, and programs to persuade businesses not to dump illegally.
—Reuters, 1/6; AFP, 1/14
Can You Taste the Righteousness?
At least among committed environmentalists, there are two words that can make a cup of coffee magically taste better: “eco-friendly.”
According to a recent study published in the journal PLOS ONE, when presented with two identical cups of coffee many people will say that the “eco-friendly” one tastes superior. The finding tracks with other research that has found that many people’s taste preferences are informed by what they think of the food or beverage, as much as by how it actually tastes. For example, consumers rate wines more highly if they believe they are more expensive, and they say nutrition bars don’t taste good if they are told the bars contain soy. Our beliefs, it turns out, condition our taste buds.
photo Zsuzsanna Kilian
Researchers behind the new study first assessed whether their subjects had a commitment to environmental protection, and sorted them into two groups: “high sustainability” and “low sustainability.” They gave the subjects two identical cups of coffee brewed from the same Arabica beans using a standard coffee machine. Researches said one coffee was made from “eco-friendly” coffee beans while the other was not, and asked subjects to rank the coffees by taste. Again and again, people who said they cared about the environment gave the eco-coffee a higher rating.
“With the right convictions, an ‘eco-friendly’ label is sufficient for a product to taste better than a non-labeled objectively identical alternative,” the study concluded.
The committed environmentalists in the study said they would pay up to 25 percent more for the coffee they were told was “eco-friendly.” But they didn’t say that to impress the researchers. The study also did another experiment/control in which the researchers either expressed some preference for “eco-friendly” coffee or did not do so. Regardless of what the researchers communicated, the environmentalists still preferred the “eco” one. In the researchers’ words: “Social desirability did not influence the eco-label effect on taste.”
So food marketers take note: There are some people out there who are so committed to sustainability that they will trick themselves into believing that green tastes good.
—Conservation, 12/5; Los Angeles Times, 12/4
Water, Water Everywhere
Thirsty? Look no farther than the nearest ocean.
In a study published in Nature, Australian researchers say they have discovered 500,000 cubic kilometers (120,000 cubic miles) of low-salinity water below the seafloor off the coasts of Australia, China, North America, and South Africa. That’s a lot of water – almost 22 times the amount in the Great Lakes. “The volume of this water resource is a hundred times greater than the amount we’ve extracted from the Earth’s sub-surface in the past century since 1900,” says lead author Vincent Post of Flinders University.
Not only that, but the research shows that these untapped aquifers, once thought to be rare, are actually quite common. “By combining all this information [from previous studies] we’ve demonstrated that the freshwater below the seafloor is a common finding, and not some anomaly that only occurs under very special circumstances,” Post explains. Although this low-salinity water will require some desalinization, it will be much less costly to desalinate than seawater.
The discovery of these vast aquifers couldn’t have come soon enough. Population growth has stressed freshwater resources in recent decades, and 40 percent of humanity now struggles with water scarcity. “Freshwater on our planet is increasingly under stress and strain, so the discovery of significant new stores off the coast is very exciting,” Post says. “It means that more options can be considered to help reduce the impact of droughts and continental water shortages.”
But offshore drilling for the water will be expensive. There is also a risk of contamination, particularly from oil and gas exploration and production. Aquifers can be breached by boreholes during offshore oil drilling, which can degrade water quality.
Post warns that the aquifers are finite and unlikely to be replenished any time soon. The existing freshwater reserves formed during hundreds of thousands of years, when global sea levels were much lower than they are now, and rainwater could fill up the water table in areas that are now submerged under the ocean. The aquifers remained protected from nearby seawater by clay and sediment layers.
“We should use them carefully,” Post says. “Once gone, they won’t be replenished until the sea level drops again, which is not likely to happen for a very long time.”
—Reuters, 12/5; Daily Mail, 12/7; Science Daily, 12/8