Thursday, May 12, 2016


Published as a podcast at on Friday 13th May.

I'm a gardener. I've often been told that there is no such thing as weed. It's just a plant in the wrong place.
I'm a consumer. We’re increasingly told that there is no such thing as rubbish. It's just materials in the wrong place.

Hello, this is Anthony Day and here is the latest episode of the sustainable futures report for Friday, 13 May.

This week we ask whether electronic waste is the new gold-rush and comment on a new report from the Environmental Services Association. What was the carbon footprint of COP21? Who might be making cars as well as vacuum cleaners? Where will the 5th Carbon Budget take us? 

Beware of Bank Fraud

But first, a cautionary tale which suggests that it’s sometimes a good idea to pay by cheque. We sold a family house recently and asked the solicitor to pay the proceeds into the bank. “No,” they said, “we’ll send a cheque. It’s the firm’s policy.”
“A cheque? For hundreds of thousands of pounds?”
They explained that there were too many cases where account numbers had been misquoted or fraudsters had managed to intercept and change them. The money went to the wrong account and disappeared forever. For these large amounts they now only use cheques.

This week it was reported that South Korea’s largest petrochemical company, LG Chem, made a $21-million wire payment to a fraudulent company account claiming to be that of Saudi Aramco, which is LG Chem’s supplier in Saudi Arabia of naphtha.
According to LG Chem, it had received an email seemingly sent by Saudi Aramco Products Trading in which it was notified about a bank account change. The sender was aware of the amount of money which LG Chem owed its supplier and asked for the sum to be wired into the new account. And it did. It’s urgently seeking redress from both its supplier and the government.

It’s very difficult to spot fraudulent documents and transactions in a busy accounts office. We’ve all seen very credible-looking invoices and received carefully-designed emails which are supposed to have come from the bank, or PayPal or the tax office. Most of these are for small amounts and could slip through for payment with minimal authorisation requirements. Good for a fraudster sending out thousands each day.

Bank account details are something else. If you receive notification of a change to a payee’s account your systems and procedures should demand confirmation via channels you know you can trust. You might consider sending a nominal £1 payment to any new account and confirming with the recipient that it’s arrived, before making a major transfer.


An article in poses the question ‘Is e-waste the next gold-rush?’

In 2014 alone, it tells us, the volume of e-waste generated across the world - scrap computers, phones, televisions, games consoles and so on - topped 40 million tonnes – enough to fill 15,000 football stadiums. By 2017, the world could be producing 50 million tonnes of the stuff every year. Less than 20 per cent of that is recycled worldwide. Why a gold-rush? Well, as rare metals get rarer and more difficult to extract, recycling starts to become more interesting. For a start, weight for weight there is 17 times as much gold in scrap mobile phones as there is in the same amount of ore. At the same time scrap phones contain copper, silver and rare earth metals. The problem is getting the materials out. Many components are glued in place and some of the materials are toxic. The only places where wages are low enough to support the labour needed to take scrap electronics apart are in developing countries. Few of these countries have regulations to protect either the workers or the environment. 

Modular Phones

The circular economy approach is to design products to make them easy to repair, refurbish and finally recycle. 
The new Fairphone, for instance, (we’ve mentioned it before) uses a case made from recycled plastics and a printed circuit board made from recycled copper. The idea is to have interchangeable components, which means that every part can be replaced separately without throwing away the whole smartphone. This means it can be upgraded, extending its life.

The rumour is that Google’s Project ARA is a modular phone. The launch has been announced and postponed several times. The Project ARA website has a single black page with an email address for developers to contact, and nothing else. According to this means that the launch is imminent and updates could come at the Google I/O trade show, to be held May 18 to 20 in Mountain View, California.

Other commentators suggest that Google wants to put ARA on the “too hard” pile and let it be quietly forgotten. Yes, a modular phone has tremendous advantages in terms of resource recycling and avoids any conflict minerals. It gives the consumer the opportunity to upgrade and customise the speaker, the battery, the camera, the memory, the screen and so on. The problem is that it has to compete in a market where other vendors - and consumers - still see the phone as a fashion item to be discarded for a new model, often in less than a year. The modular phone needs to be stylish, price-competitive and the modules mustn’t fall out. The technical problems are considerable. Imagine four or five exchangeable modules, many from third-party suppliers. Then imagine trying to ensure that they all work together in all possible combinations. Whose fault is it if they don’t? Whose fault is it if they wipe your data or even publish your address book on the internet?

Anyway, assuming we can design products for recycling, including many more products, not just mobile phones, a new report from the Environmental Services Association called Delivering Sustainable Growth raises a number of issues. 

A Future for Recycling

It starts by explaining that: “The Environmental Services Association (ESA) is the voice of Resource and Waste Management Industry in the UK. Our Members turn waste into valuable resources while protecting the environment. We represent approximately half of the waste sector—including all the major companies” 
In his foreword to the report, chairman Peter Gerstrom says:
“The industry is working hard to fulfil its ambitions of a more Circular Economy that is beneficial both for the environment and for GDP. This report sets out our achievements and ambitions for delivering sustainable growth within our industry and for the whole nation. 
“However,” he goes on, “there are certain barriers to reaching our full potential where Government intervention is crucial, and in many cases, increasingly urgent. 
“Household waste volumes are once again rising, putting a huge burden on local authority finances. Our industry is also currently experiencing immense challenges with the drop in commodity prices putting pressure on the economic viability of recycling. This unstable outlook has had knock-on implications for investment in waste infrastructure. Combined, these factors are making the likelihood of the UK reaching its target of 50% household recycling by 2020 ever smaller. On top of this, the problem of waste crime is undermining legitimate business and costing the Exchequer hundreds of millions of pounds each year. 
“We believe that with the right policy climate, not only can immediate threats be averted, but our industry can contribute even more to a thriving workforce, a flourishing environment, and a prosperous economy. 
He calls for four key actions:
  1. The development of more resilient recovery markets for waste-derived products 
  2. The introduction of a new framework for producer responsibility which transfers resource ownership from local authorities to product supply chains 
  3. More efficient use of waste collection systems and infrastructure
  4. Waste crime driven out of the sector
“We believe,” he says, “that tackling these areas will unlock much needed investment in our industry, which would help deliver economic growth, thousands of new jobs, and a greener, cleaner Britain.”
How far the government can help with this is not clear, although it has specific responsibilities under the European Directives. Should we decide to leave the EU at the end of next month of course all that would change. I can’t see this government, focussed as it is on cutting spending and minimising the role of the state, rushing to introduce its own more stringent regulations.

The report is an interesting read, containing case studies and more information on the measures needed to achieve its key objectives. It includes useful diagrams, some recycled from earlier documents. But then, recycling is what it’s all about, isn’t it?

You can find a link to the report above. 

In other news

Who might be making cars as well as vacuum cleaners?
What was the carbon footprint of COP21?

And where will the 5th Carbon Budget take us?

The Government is required to set a legally binding carbon budget for the period 2028-2032 by the end of June 2016. The independent Committee on Climate Change has recommended a budget that would limit annual emissions to an average 57% below 1990 levels, as being the most cost effective way for the UK to achieve its long-term climate targets.

Twenty Conservative MPs have written to the prime minister urging him to accept the steep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions required by the UK’s ‘fifth carbon budget’, making a strong statement that climate change is a problem that cannot wait.
The 20 backbench Tory MPs include former fisheries minister Richard Benyon, chair of the health select committee Sarah Wollaston, former under secretary of state for health Daniel Poulter, and member of the environmental audit committee Rebecca Pow.

“[The carbon budget] is tailored to meeting our carbon obligations at the lowest possible cost and with the highest ancillary gains,” they wrote to David Cameron. “Early and full acceptance of that advice will give investors and government the confidence to act and so maintain this government’s proud record of lower emissions combined with sustained economic growth.”
The letter was co-ordinated by Graham Stuart, MP for Beverley and Holderness since 2005 and a long-time campaigner for climate action who is also vice-chairman of the Globe group of legislators around the world pushing for laws on greenhouse gases.

Under the fifth carbon budget, emissions must fall by 57% below 1990 levels by 2032. The budget was set out by the Committee on Climate Change, the statutory body set up under the climate change act to advise ministers on how to meet the UK’s long term climate target of an 80% reduction in emissions by mid-century.

iema reports

This week IEMA, the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment, published the results of a survey of environment and sustainability professionals. It showed overwhelming support for the UK Government to adopt the recommendations of the Committee on Climate Change. for an ambitions 5th Carbon Budget. 

IEMA’s research found that almost 90% (87.3%) of respondents to its poll conducted during the past week believe that the UK Government should accept the Committee on Climate Change recommendation.
Martin Baxter, IEMA’s Chief Policy Advisor said:
The Government’s independent climate advisors have recommended a carbon budget that is consistent with the UK meeting its national and international emissions reductions in the most cost effective way. Government urgently needs to adopt this recommendation to provide long-term certainty to business and investors”. 
The true test of climate leadership is about sustaining the implementation of policies to achieve long-term climate goals. Government must remain resolute in its support for the UK achieving the 2050 80% cut in greenhouse gas emissions. The 5th Carbon Budget provides the basis for giving confidence for investment, innovation, progressive transformation and effective action.”

Further to the recommendations made by the Committee on Climate Change, the Paris COP 21 climate agreement set in place a framework for limiting global warming to well below 2℃ and to limit net global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by the end of this century.  The agreement also set an ambition to limit average global warming to 1.5oC. 
In the UK, the Climate Change Act (2008) sets an 80% GHG emissions reduction for 2050 compared to 1990, with a rolling programme of 3 carbon-budgets each spanning a 5-year period.  

Economic Report

It’s encouraging to hear Tory MPs speaking up in support of carbon reduction. All too often the denialists claim that low carbon policies and green taxes are destroying our industry. Interesting then to read a report from the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the LSE. Among other things they conclude that:

The UK is part of a leading group of nations that is taking ambitious action on climate change. This group includes many of the UK’s trade competitors.

There is robust evidence that current UK climate policy regime has not damaged the competitiveness of UK based businesses nor led to relocation. In particular, there is no compelling evidence that investments in the EU have been cancelled, or production moved, because of the EU Emissions Trading System or, in the UK, because of the Climate Change Levy.
Climate change policies generate low-carbon innovation which can boost economic growth. Low-carbon technologies have high social and economic value and tend to have broad application across the economy.  Their breath of application is comparable to new technologies in the ICT sector.

Indeed, it says that
The EU should be prepared to raise the ambition of its emissions reduction target. Its current aim to reduce emissions by 40% (compared to 1990) is at the low end of the target range that would enable the EU to meet its 2050 target at the lowest cost to businesses and consumers.

What are you driving?

Talking or low carbon technology, some of us are old enough to remember the Sinclair C5, the electric car launched by computer pioneer Sir Clive Sinclair. It was a pedal-assisted electric tricycle, assembled at a Hoover factory in Wales. It had a 20-mile range, a maximum speed of only 15 miles per hour (24 km/h), a battery that ran down quickly, a lack of weatherproofing and pedals which you needed when going uphill. It bombed.

Now there’s another link to electric cars and vacuum cleaners. At the end of last year James Dyson bought American battery company Sakti3. 

Prof David Greenwood, who leads the energy storage work at Warwick University’s manufacturing group, said that if the company’s solid-state battery lived up to its promise, Dyson could rival Tesla on the car market. There are already rumours that Dyson is working with the government on the development of an electric car. The key to successfully powering vehicles is energy density within an energy store - the amount of energy stored for a given weight. Petrol, for example, is highly energy-intensive.

Prof Donald Sadoway at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told the magazine Nature that high-density batteries could prove decisive in the widespread adoption of electric vehicles: “If we had batteries with [energy densities of] 350 watt-hours per kilogram (Wh/kg) we’d have electric vehicles with 350 miles of range, and that’s the end of petroleum.”

Dyson’s battery company, Sakti3, has not disclosed the energy density it has achieved but industry experts estimate it has already passed 300Wh/kg. Sakti3’s patent states: “No solid state batteries with ceramic electrolytes have come close to achieving [our] level of energy density.” Solid state batteries do not have liquid electrolytes - by definition - and do not have the fire risks of lithium ion batteries, which have affected some electric vehicles and some aircraft, notably the Boeing Dreamliner. 

Why put down a deposit for the new Tesla when you could soon be driving a Dyson instead? Made in the UK? That’s the next question.

A Clean COP?

And finally, how clean was COP21, the UN climate change conference held in Paris last December?
Making COP21 a carbon-neutral conference was one of the French Presidency’s commitments. On Thursday, 7 April 2016, Pierre-Henri Guignard, Secretary-General of COP21, presented the carbon footprint of COP21 on national territory: 9,600 tonnes of CO2 equivalent – equal to the annual emissions of just 800 French people, and half the amount forecast, all thanks to an effective action plan.

Not sure whether that accounts for all the air miles, but I expect that the delegates all purchased offsets.

And so another episode of the Sustainable Futures Report draws to a close. Thankfully no casualties have been reported as a result of the wildfire in the tar sands region of Canada. Oil is still nudging $47. I’ll have to ask an expert what that’s all about.

Until next time this is Anthony Day wishing you a very good week and promising you another episode of the sustainable futures report next week. If you're in the UK, enjoy the sunshine while it lasts. I'm certainly going to.

Bye for now.

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