Wednesday, 24 February 2010

How big is the problem of electronic waste, and can it be tackled?

By Michael McCarthy, Environment Editor
Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Why are we asking this now?
Because yesterday the UN issued a new report on electronic waste, highlighting the danger from "rocketing" sales of mobile phones, PCs and electronic appliances, in the developing countries especially.
What danger is that?
Modern electronic devices might look clean, sleek and spotless on the outside, but inside they contain a lot of materials used in manufacture which are potentially hazardous to human health. Typical ones are PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastic, used as an insulator with internal cabling, and brominated flame retardants, chemicals used to laminate printed circuit boards to prevent them catching fire.
Most of these substances can be disposed of safely, but considerable investment in waste-handling infrastructure is needed to do so, and in the past, many countries, especially the US, have declined to make the investment and instead taken the "out of sight, out of mind" attitude, and simply shipped their e-waste abroad, usually to developing nations such as China and India. There, instead of being properly processed, appliances are either dumped in unmanaged landfills or broken up for scrap in unofficial recycling facilities – not infrequently by children.
But why break up dangerous waste?
Electronic goods don't just contain hazardous substances – they contain valuable substances as well. A device such as a laptop may contain as many as 60 different elements – many valuable, some dangerous, some both. To poor people in the developing countries, there can be real money in a discarded computer or mobile phone. Copper wire is just the start of it. Mobiles and PCs are now estimated to take up three per cent of the gold and silver mined worldwide each year, 13 per cent of the palladium and 15 per cent of the cobalt, as well as substantial amounts of very rare metals such as hafnium. But trying to recover these can pose real hazards, as substantial plumes of toxic pollution, for example, can be produced by backyard incineration. And the concern is, the stream of e-waste is growing ever larger around the world.
How big is the e-waste stream?
A couple of years ago the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimated that, worldwide, between 20 and 50 million tonnes of electrical and electronic goods which had come to the end of their lives were being thrown away every year. The latest UNEP report now estimates the annual total at 40 billion tonnes, with America in the lead, producing 3m tonnes domestically every year, followed by China with 2.3m tonnes. (The UK total is thought to be more than 1m tonnes, about 15 per cent of the EU total – it is the fastest-growing waste stream in Britain). But more important, the figure is starting to soar upwards, especially with a gigantic surge of disposable electronics use in the developing countries.
What sort of goods, and in what sort of numbers?
Globally more than a billion mobile phones were sold in 2007, up from 896m in 2006 (In many parts of Africa telephone communications have skipped the landline stage and gone from no phones, to mobile phones, in one step). In the US alone, more than 150m mobiles and pagers were sold in 2008, up from 90m five years earlier. The waste streams are correspondingly burgeoning, and the new UN report focuses on China, India and the other relatively poor but expanding economies.
In China, for example, the report predicts that by 2020, e-waste from old computers will have jumped by 200 to 400 percent from 2007 levels, and the same holds true for South Africa, while the figure for India is a staggering 500 per cent. By that same year in China, e-waste from discarded mobile phones will be about 7 times higher than 2007 levels and, in India, 18 times higher, while e-waste from televisions will be 1.5 to 2 times higher in China and India, and in India e-waste from discarded refrigerators will double or triple. Add to that the vast amounts of e-waste that are still being imported from countries such as the US, and you have a quite colossal e-waste mountain in prospect, with its corresponding dangers for human health and the environment. "The issue is exploding," says Ruediger Kuehr, of the United Nations University in Tokyo.
What can we do about it?
The first thing to do is recognise the problem. The electronics revolution of the past 30 years has seemed different in kind from the original industrial revolution, characterised by smokestacks belching very obvious filth; it has seemed clean, green and lean. But we have gradually come to realise that in two ways in particular, modern hi-tech can be bad for the planet too. The first is its energy use; so enormous is the worldwide scale of IT that electronics now accounts for fully two per cent of global carbon emissions, which about the same as aviation, whose emissions have become highly controversial. The second is the hardware, when it comes to the end of its natural life, which increasingly, is pretty short. We have been largely ignorant of this increasingly important waste stream, so much so that a Greenpeace report on e-waste two years ago referred to it as "the hidden flow". We need to be aware of it.
Once we've recognised the problem, then what?
The European Union has shown the way by adopting a key principle: producer responsibility – that is, make the producers of electronic goods responsible for their disposal at the end of their lives. This is enshrined in the European Union's WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) directive of 2002 which is now law in Britain and across the EU. In practice, it means that electronics retailers must either take back the equipment they sold you, or help to finance a network or drop-off points, such as council recycling sites. There have been some problems with the directive's initial operation, but its main feature is impressive in its ambition: it aims to deal with "everything with a plug".
Has producer responsibility been adopted elsewhere?
Hardly at all as yet, and the EU is very much in the vanguard. The US did nothing in terms of federal legislation during the George W Bush years, and such rules as exist are implemented by the states, such as California. The new UN report suggests that all countries should start to establish proper e-waste management networks, which could not only cut down on health problems but generate employment, cut greenhouse gas emissions and recover a wide range of valuable substances from gold to copper.
Is there anything else that can be done?
Yes: design the problem out. Groups such as Greenpeace have led the way in putting pressure on companies like Apple to find substitutes for the toxic chemicals inside their products, and have had some success in forcing them to develop non-toxic alternatives. This may be the real way forward.
Is the rising tide of e-waste going to swamp us?
* Once we recognise the problem, it becomes possible to deal with it, and the need is paramount
* The adoption of producer responsibility for disposal, as championed by the EU, is a major step forward
* Some of the hazards can actually be designed out, and that must be a priority for manufacturers
* The growth of the global e-waste stream is becoming simply too large to handle
* In many countries there are no incentives to install official recycling schemes
* Informal recycling is so large in countries such as China that it will hamper official schemes

Academic attempts to take the hot air out of climate science debate

Judith Curry aims to turn inflammatory debate of 'climategate' into reasoned online discussions to rebuild trust with the public

Professor Judith Curry, who currently chairs the Georgia Institute of Technology's School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, has embarked on what she's describing as a "blogospheric experiment". Having written a lengthy essay entitled Losing the Public's Trust which will be published later today, she decided to alert many bloggers across the climate change debate in "the hope of demonstrating the collective power of the blogosphere to generate ideas and debate them". She has asked the likes of Anthony Watts, Andrew Revkin, Roger Pielke Jr, among many others, to pitch in with their own thoughts about her essay with the goal of "bringing some sanity to this whole situation surrounding the politicization of climate science and rebuilding trust with the public". I genuinely hope she achieves her aims.
As and when other bloggers publish their own responses I will try and provide links to them below, but here are my own thoughts on Curry's article. First, I agree with her opening premise that "credibility is a combination of expertise and trust" and that the climate research establishment has failed to understand that the "climategate" furore is "primarily a crisis of trust".
In their misguided war against the skeptics, the CRU emails reveal that core research values became compromised. Much has been said about the role of the highly politicized environment in providing an extremely difficult environment in which to conduct science that produces a lot of stress for the scientists. There is no question that this environment is not conducive to science and scientists need more support from their institutions in dealing with it. However, there is nothing in this crazy environment that is worth sacrificing your personal or professional integrity. And when your science receives this kind of attention, it means that the science is really important to the public. Therefore scientists need to do everything possible to make sure that they effectively communicate uncertainty, risk, probability and complexity, and provide a context that includes alternative and competing scientific viewpoints. This is an important responsibility that individual scientists and particularly the institutions need to take very seriously.
If the "climate research establishment" is to take away one lesson from this sorry episode it will surely be the need to "effectively communicate uncertainty, risk, probability and complexity, and provide a context that includes alternative and competing scientific viewpoints".
Up to this point I strongly agree with Curry's sentiments, but I think she is a little complacent in her assessment of the "changing nature of scepticism about global warming". She correctly identifies that climate scepticism is a multi-headed and ever-shifting beast. There are as many flavours to the sceptics as there are to environmentalists. To label them all as flat-earthers and big oil deniers is just as ill-judged and lacking in subtlety as labelling all environmentalists as "eco-Nazis intent on taking us all back to the caves". Genuine climate science sceptics such as Climate Audit's Steven McIntyre are a world apart from the out-and-out denial pumped out by the likes of Prison Planet's Alex Jones. Somewhere in between are the likes of Anthony Watts who risks polluting his legitimate scepticism about the scientific processes and methodologies underpinning climate science with his accompanying politicised commentary. But Curry bags them up together and describes Watts and McIntyre both as "climate auditors":
They are technically educated people, mostly outside of academia. Several individuals have developed substantial expertise in aspects of climate science, although they mainly audit rather than produce original scientific research. They tend to be watchdogs rather than deniers; many of them classify themselves as "lukewarmers". They are independent of oil industry influence. They have found a collective voice in the blogosphere and their posts are often picked up by the mainstream media. They are demanding greater accountability and transparency of climate research and assessment reports… So how did this group of bloggers succeed in bringing the climate establishment to its knees (whether or not the climate establishment realizes yet that this has happened)? Again, trust plays a big role; it was pretty easy to follow the money trail associated with the "denial machine". On the other hand, the climate auditors have no apparent political agenda, are doing this work for free, and have been playing a watchdog role, which has engendered the trust of a large segment of the population.
I think Curry has misjudged this point a tad. If the "climate auditors" were exactly as billed above I would agree they are a most welcome addition to the debate. But to claim these blogs have no political agenda is naïve, I feel. Granted, both McIntyre and Watts do make regular efforts to tone down some of the very worst off-topic comments that follow their posts, but it doesn't take much analysis to know where the political heartbeat of these blogs lies. For right or wrong, they have attracted a particular crowd of followers – predominantly right-wingers in favour of the free-market and libertarianism – and it must be a difficult horse for McIntyre and Watts to ride at times without playing to the crowd.
Curry goes on to say:
There is a large group of educated and evidence driven people (eg, the libertarians, people that read the technical skeptic blogs, not to mention policy makers) who want to understand the risk and uncertainties associated with climate change, without being told what kinds of policies they should be supporting.
I think this is an important point. Some sceptics such as Bjørn Lomborgand Nigel Lawson have made a very conscious shift in their stance in recent years away from one that questioned the science to one that now largely focuses on questioning the policy responses to climate change. If we are to have a fierce, politicised debate let it lie here, surely. But let's keep the politics out of both the climate science and those that choose to try and audit it via their blogs.
And it is on this point that I think Curry makes her most powerful point:
While the blogosphere has a "wild west" aspect to it, I have certainly learned a lot by participating in the blogospheric debate including how to sharpen my thinking and improve the rhetoric of my arguments. Additional scientific voices entering the public debate particularly in the blogosphere would help in the broader communication efforts and in rebuilding trust. And we need to acknowledge the emerging auditing and open source movements in the internet-enabled world, and put them to productive use. The openness and democratization of knowledge enabled by the internet can be a tremendous tool for building public understanding of climate science and also trust in climate research.
I, too, think it would be a grave mistake not to make better use of the obvious open-source and crowd-source advantages enabled by blogs such as Climate Audit. Just as the SETI@Home project has made use of thousands of otherwise idle computers to scan radio telescope data for signs of extraterrestrial life, if people are willing and able to interrogate climate datasets in their spare time it would be strange in my view not to try and make use of this collective resource.
But the key for me is that word "trust" again. I think until those that frequent these sites come out from behind the cloak of anonymity that most of them choose to hide behind very few people, particularly climate scientists, will be willing to trust the motives of this army of DIY auditors. Anonymity allows for some spicy free speech beneath blogs such as this one, but it is not the right tool if we're seeking the "openness and democratization of knowledge". If we are to once again try and drive a wedge between science and politics, then all the participating actors – on both sides of the debate - need to be open about who they are and where their motives and vested interest, if any, lay.

Scotland not doing enough to meet emissions target, ministers told

Emissions cuts from cars, homes and farming are key if Scotland is to meet its target of a 42% reduction, new report says
Severin Carrell, Wednesday 24 February 2010 11.39 GMT
Scottish ministers have been warned they need to aggressively target carbon emissions from car use, home energy and farming if Scotland is to meet its ambitious target of cutting CO2 levels by 42% in the next decade.
The Committee on Climate Change, an influential government advisory body chaired by Lord Adair Turner, has told Alex Salmond's nationalist government it needs to show much greater "political will and leadership" if Scotland is to build a truly low-carbon economy by 2020.
In a report released today, the committee complimented the devolved government for setting "ambitious targets", and confirmed they were tougher and farther-reaching than the UK's government's interim target of a 34% cut by 2020.
The UK government has promised to increase that target to around 42% if a global climate deal is agreed upon, but unlike Scotland, it has refused to include aviation and shipping in its calculations or to set annual targets.
Stop Climate Chaos Scotland, an influential umbrella group of more than 60 environment groups, faith groups, civic organisations and development charities, said the committee's conclusions would increase pressure on UK ministers to set a similar and binding target.
Mike Robinson, the group's chair, said: "This is a great opportunity for the UK government to be ahead of the curve and show some leadership. I do think this shows the UK should up its game. The world needs more ambitious targets."
David Kennedy, the committee's chief executive, stopped short of endorsing that view. But the committee's report confirmed the widely held belief that Scotland's target is heavily dependent on the negotiation of a new global climate treaty. After the failure of the Copenhagen talks last December, no deal is expected before next year.
The Scottish government has direct control over only a minority of Scotland's CO2 emissions, which in 2007 amounted to 56.9m tonnes a year. The committee did not establish the extent of that control, but Scottish officials said it is roughly 30%.
The bulk of Scotland's CO2 emissions are covered by either the EU emissions trading scheme for large energy users, such as power stations, or UK government policies on fuel and car taxes.
The committee warned that a failure to sign a global deal on emissions would make it extremely difficult to hit the 42% target. Even with a deal, though, it said Scotland still needs a "step change" in its policies on transport, housing, waste and agriculture, and to aggressively push renewable power through the planning system.
It specifically recommended greater efforts to promote electric cars: successive Scottish governments and local councils have been far slower than English authorities to invest in low-energy transport, such as hybrid buses or electric vehicle charging points. The SNP has also been strongly criticised for its substantial road-building programme.
The committee said including aviation and shipping, however, meant other parts of the Scottish economy would bear a heavier burden for cutting emissions, increasing the scale of the overall challenge, as these sectors were ignored by EU and UK carbon budgets.
Professor Jim Skea, a member of the committee, said: "These are ambitious targets that go further than those in the rest of the UK. A step change will be needed to unlock potential emissions reductions in Scotland, but we believe this to be achievable with new policies."
Late yesterday, Stewart Stevenson, the Scottish climate change minister, retracted an earlier statement saying the report was a "robust and complex piece of work", and did not directly respond to the committee's challenge on strengthening government policy.
In a revised statement, he said: "The need to take action to reduce our emissions is clear and everyone has a role to play in helping Scotland meet its world leading climate change targets.
"Achieving the necessary reductions in emissions will require hard decisions, not only by governments but also by businesses, the public sector, voluntary and community groups and individuals."

Reject sceptics' attempts to derail global climate deal, UN chief urges

Ban Ki-moon urges environment ministers to reject attempts by sceptics to undermine negotiations by exaggerating shortcomings in Himalayan glaciers report

Associated Press, Wednesday 24 February 2010 10.20 GMT

The UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, today urged environment ministers to reject attempts by sceptics to undermine efforts to forge a climate change deal, stressing that global warming poses "a clear and present danger."
In a message read by a UN official, Ban referred to the controversy over mistakes made in a 2007 report issued by the UN-affiliated Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which have been criticised by climate sceptics.
Despite the failure to forge a binding deal on curbing heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions at a UN conference in Copenhagen last December, Ban said the meeting made an important step forward by setting a target to keep global temperature from rising and establishing a program of climate aid to poorer nations.
"To maintain the momentum, I urge you to reject last-ditch attempts by climate sceptics to derail your negotiations by exaggerating shortcomings in the ... report," Ban said in the statement read at the start of an annual UN meeting of environmental officials from 130 countries on the Indonesian resort island of Bali.
"Tell the world that you unanimously agree that climate change is a clear and present danger," Ban said. A British poll yesterday showed public conviction about the threat of climate change has declined sharply in the last year.
The Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, said time was running out, but expressed confidence that a binding climate change deal could be forged at the next climate change summit later this year in Cancun, Mexico.
"I'm convinced that we're still not too late," he said at the Bali conference.
Indonesian foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, said Indonesia will hold an informal meeting of all environmental ministers and officials from 130 countries Friday in Bali to discuss ways of ensuring that a binding treaty on greenhouse gas cutbacks could be forged in Cancun.
"No sealed deal happened in Copenhagen, so it's now more urgent than ever for us to work diligently between now and Mexico," Natalegawa told The Associated Press in an interview.
"It should have been urgent last year, but we didn't live up to that urgency," he said.

GM and farming technology 'key to fighting climate change'

Lord Smith tells National Farmers' Union that climate change 'could provide opportunities for novel crops and systems'

Rebecca Smithers, consumer affairs correspondent, Wednesday 24 February 2010 06.00 GMT

Genetically modified oilseed rape, one of the four main commercial GM crops. The Environment Agency is encouraging GM and other precision farming methods in order to combat the problems agriculture will face from climate change. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty
The government's drive to push controversial genetically modified crops up the national agenda will receive a further boost today, when former cabinet minister Chris Smith will tell farmers that the technology has a key role in helping the UK beating climate change.
Lord Smith, former culture secretary under Tony Blair and now chair of the Environment Agency, will say that both GM crops and new technologies to support "precision farming" - including nanotechnology - could help tackle growing climate pressures such as water shortages.
Addressing delegates at the National Farmers' Union's (NFU) annual conference in Birmingham, Lord Smith will tell farmers that climate change "will create new demands on land and environmental resources" and "could provide opportunities for novel crops and systems".
Intense lobbying by food companies, the growing significance of climate change, recent international food crises and shortages and a major independent Royal Society report have all helped to give the government the authority to put GM back on the national agenda. The controversial technology was the focus of intense campaigns including destruction of GM crop trials by environmentalists in the 1990s, and last month came under renewed attack from academics and organic food campaigners at the Oxford Real Farming Conference.
Lord Smith will say: "We can already see wildlife following climate change – the mayfly is now found some 40 miles further north than before and warmer winters and wetter summers are thought to be a major factor in the rapid decline of pollinating insects with UK bee populations, in particular, falling by 10-15% over the last two years.
"The reliance on seasonal weather patterns means that farming will follow climate change too. My own personal view is that we probably need to be readier to explore GM options, coupled of course with proper environmental safeguards, in adapting to the changes that the climate will bring."
The GM industry now involves 14 million farmers in 25 countries who are growing 134m hectares of GM crops around the world. This is a 7% increase compared with last year.
Lord Smith will recommend more use of new technology: "New tools and technologies are becoming available, nanotechnology for example, as well as the use of satellites, IT and other tools to support precision farming. We need to understand the environmental implications of novel approaches in order to embrace them and be clear how they will help us achieve long-term goals.
"We need to ensure that science is at the forefront of development and innovation and that effective knowledge transfer means farmers can adapt and innovate. Innovation has already seen British agriculture adapt to the economic challenges it has faced over the last 15 years or so and I know it will do so into the future."
Organic farmers have been more resistant to the use of GM than "conventional" farmers represented in the membership of the NFU, although the latter broadly agrees that any such developments must be subject to proper scientific evaluation.
Yesterday Paul Kelly, founder of Kelly's Turkeys, told the conference: "GM has had a terrible press and consumers are very confused. But it is only a matter of time before we are feeding our turkeys GM feed."
As well as exploring the potential of new crops and technologies, Lord Smith will underline the need for agriculture to become more water efficient as climate change ushers in longer, hotter, drier summers.
On the opening day of the conference yesterday, the Conservatives set out plans to prevent development on top quality farmland, reform the body which delivers EU subsidies to farmers and set up a review of red tape as part of efforts to back British farming.
The Liberal Democrats also set out proposals to improve delivery of subsidies by the Rural Payments Agency, which in 2006 left farmers without EU grants after problems with its computer system.