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September 27th, 2015:

Making money from CO2

Imagine if waste carbon dioxide in the air could be turned into useful products such as fuels, building materials or even baking powder. At a stroke it would help get rid of a greenhouse gas, slow down climate change and make money from a major pollutant.

If that sounds like cloud cuckooland, the technology is already being used and companies are turning waste CO2 into commercially viable products.

In Massachusetts, Novomer is a company that has developed catalysts to convert the gas into polymers and plastics, and Joule is a biotech start-up using waste CO2 to feed bacteria that produce ethanol and diesel. Skyonic in Texas turns CO2 into construction materials and even baking soda, while Princeton University’s Liquid Light uses electricity and catalysts to convert it into the building blocks of bottles and fibres.

Much of this technology plugs into waste CO2 from polluting industries. But recent work has sucked it out of the air we breathe. Carbon dioxide is a trace gas, just 0.04% of the atmosphere, so large amounts of air have to be treated to extract it. Recent research at George Washington University captured atmospheric CO2, then turned it into graphene carbon nanofibres, used for strengthening materials in aircraft, cars, wind turbines and sports equipment.

Work is underway to scale up the technique, and if it can produce nanofibres cheaply enough, they could be used for strengthening building materials, thereby using up significant quantities.

And making money from CO2 is certainly an interesting way of tackling climate change.

Incineration of Municipal Waste in MSW Incinerators

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‘Merchants’: The selling of doubt

Based on the book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, the new film “Merchants of Doubt” sheds light on the sleight of hand used by climate-change deniers, using a magician demonstrating card tricks to illustrate the metaphor.

The sowing of doubt about the validity of scientific data didn’t start with global warming. “Merchants” — by Robert Kenner, who directed “Food, Inc.” — cites the debate over the safety of cigarettes, when the tobacco industry publicly denied for years that its product was harmful until the release of its own internal documents revealed a carefully concealed coverup.

Since the tobacco industry push-back, public-relations flacks have honed their tack of either flat-out denying incontrovertible scientific evidence, or insisting that data is insufficient, ambiguous, or otherwise not convincing enough to act upon.

Before zeroing in on climate change, “Merchants” looks at manufacturers of flame-retardant products, which got fired up by big-tobacco tactics, but took them further. Chemical companies created front groups such as Citizens for Fire Safety to push for fire-retardant upholstery, which did not protect against fire, and proved to be carcinogenic.

The culmination of doubt-peddling currently plays out in the ongoing discussion about global warming, which scientists almost unanimously agree is largely caused by human activity: fossil-fuel burning, woodlands reducing, and more that increases the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The evidence continues to grow.

Unlike with the tobacco industry, climate-change deniers are not solely motivated by financial interests. Instead, “Merchants” puts them into two camps: financial and ideological.

The fossil-fuels industry trots out its experts — some of whom may be scientists in fields not familiar with climatology — to testify before Congress, opinionate in the media, or otherwise spread their contrarian message. As spin doctors, most are more effective at communication than real experts who engage in academic speak.

For example, “Merchants” interviews former salesman Marc Morano, an amusing if amoral pundit-for-hire who brags about working to debunk global warming just for the thrill of it. Morano cops to getting his kicks from debating qualified experts while getting his message across with more readily digestible sound bites.

“I’m not a scientist. I just play one on TV,” he quips. “Communication is about sales. Keep it simple; people will fill in the blanks with their own, I hate to say it, bias … with their own perspectives, in many cases.” Assessing the role he and his like fill, Morano adds, “We’re the negative force; we’re just trying to stop stuff.”

The other camp is dominated by Cold War veterans fixated on communism and anti-government ideologues who deny climate change simply because they don’t want government to wield its power to reduce it. As one of them colorfully puts it, “Environmentalists are like watermelons — green on the outside, red on the inside.”

While many deniers stick to the story that climate change is a hoax, some of the more practical people have proved adaptable: changing their rationale to deal with growing evidence. First, they claimed the Earth wasn’t warming. Then, they said that even if it were, humans can’t be blamed — it’s just cyclical. And now, they say that no matter what’s causing it, there isn’t anything that can be done about it anyway.

“Merchants” manages to find a couple former doubters who have switched sides: The Skeptic Society founder Michael Shermer, who ultimately decided that “you have to follow the science; data trumps politics,” and former Congressman Bob Inglis, who lost his re-election bid to a Tea Party member for siding with the enemy, but maintains “there are things we can do to change. The lie is that we can’t do it.”

The recurring theme of a magician relying on misdirection to work a trick runs through “Merchants.” Distraction is the key, warns Naomi Oreskes, co-author of the source book. “It’s all about preventing people from looking where the real action is, which is in the science.”

“Merchants of Doubt” is available on disc from Netflix; as video on demand from iTunes, Vudu and PlayStation; and, along with the book, from area libraries

Bridge project on man-made island breached environmental permit, says Hong Kong green group

Ernest Kao

A green group claims the Highways Department violated the conditions of an environmental permit for a man-made island that forms part of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge project by failing to declare significant changes in reclamation work.

Green Sense says that the location plans it had inspected in the nine amended environmental impact assessment (EIA) reports clearly showed that cylindrical steel cells – sunk into the seabed in a circular form and filled with debris – were to be used along the entire length of the seawall structure.

But two years ago the department’s contractor had begun using rubble mounds in some of the seawalls that may have caused more marine pollution, without noting the change in any of its nine amended assessments.

Green Sense chief executive Roy Tam Hoi-pong said this could amount to a breach of the EIA ordinance, which states that any variation to a report must prove “no material change to the environmental impact”.

Tam added that the Highways Department should not have let the contractor do this just to speed up work.

He also said the Environmental Protection Department had failed in its job to check the Highways Department.

“It is clear that this was a major change and if the EPD had allowed this, then we believe it to be a serious mishap and a defeat in the ordinance’s purpose.”

Tam said he would write to the Department of Justice urging them to take legal action and called on the relevant departments to take responsibility.

Last week the Highways Department admitted that flaws in the reclamation process were the reason part of the artificial island had drifted up to seven metres, sparking concerns of safety and cost overruns.

It said the movements were due to the use of steel seawalls, which eliminate the need for dredging, being used in the city for the first time.

The Highways Department said it had consulted the EPD and both methods were “non-dredge methods” with less environmental impact. “The EPD considered that the concerned amendments on works details involved no change to the … EIA report and no variation to the [permit] would be required.”

Environment minister Wong Kam-sing also said the project complied with permit requirements. He said silt curtains would help keep sludge from spewing into surrounding waters.