Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Updated standards on the way for Environmental Management

ISO 14001 logoA milestone has been reached in the development of a new draft of the standard many city administrations will be familiar with for helping to ensure the environmental quality of their infrastructure and operations: ISO 14001 for Environmental Management Systems (EMS).

The first formal draft produced by the expert committee tasked with bringing the standard up-to-date describes the potential requirements of the revised version of ISO 14001 and gives an indication of what might be included in the final version of the standard scheduled, which will be published in one year's time. The last draft dates from 2004. The committee is composed of representatives of national standards organisations from up to 91 countries.

ISO standards 14000 through to 14064 plus ISO 19001 constitute a family of standards related to environmental management that exists to help organizations minimize how their operations (processes, etc.) negatively affect the environment, comply with applicable laws, regulations, and other environmentally oriented requirements, plus put in place a methodology to continually improve management. The standards are voluntary.

The ISO 14001 process

Its aim is to set out the criteria for an environmental management system (EMS), providing a framework that a company or organization can follow to set up an effective EMS. It can be used by any organization that wants to improve resource efficiency, reduce waste, and drive down costs, and is used in many public administrations and their suppliers as a condition of procurement contracts.

Using ISO 14001 can provide assurance to management and employees as well as external stakeholders that environmental impact is being measured and improved.

ISO 14001 is currently being reviewed. The International Standards Organisation (ISO) has identified the following emerging changes to ISO 14001 as a result of the revision:

  1. Strategic Environmental Management
  2. Leadership
  3. Protecting the environment
  4. Environmental performance
  5. Life-cycle thinking
  6. Communication
  7. Documentation
Strategic Environmental Management
There is a new requirement to understand the context of the organisation implementing the standard in order to factor in relevant external and internal issues. Particular focus is on the needs and expectations of interested parties that can affect, or be affected by, the organisation. In this context the organisation should identify risks associated with threats and opportunities, significant environmental aspects and compliance obligations and determine actions to address them within the EMS.

Leadership: Commitment to environmental management
A new clause has been added with specific responsibilities for top management to demonstrate their leadership and commitment to environmental management. This is because having senior management buy in is a surefire way to ensure the policies become embedded in the organisation.

From prevention to protection
Environmental policy adopted by organisations should include a commitment to the “protection of the environment”. There is no definition about this but it includes “prevention of pollution” and other commitments such as sustainable resource use, climate change mitigation and adaptation, protection of biodiversity and ecosystems, etc.

Improving environmental performance
The emphasis is now on improving performance related to the management of environmental aspects. The organisation shall determine criteria to evaluate its environmental performance, using appropriate indicators.

Life-cycle thinking
Organisations will need to extend their control and influence to the environmental impacts from raw material acquisition/generation to end-of-life treatment. This does not imply a requirement to carry out a life-cycle assessment, but it is obviously advantageous to do so in order to maximise resource efficiency and minimise costs, wastage, etc.

Equal emphasis on external and internal communications has been added. The decision to communicate externally is retained by the organisation but taking into account its compliance obligations.

The term “documented information”, is used instead of “documents” and “records”. The organisation has the flexibility to determine when “procedures” are needed.

Today there are over 300,000 organisations around the world implementing the standard and you might be surprised to learn that China is one of the most enthusiastic holder of certificates. In 2012 the top three countries for the total number of certificates issued were China, Japan and Italy, while the top three for growth in the number of certificates were China, Spain and Italy.

That year experienced a growth of 9% (+ 23,887) in the issuance of certificates, in 167 countries, nine more than in the previous year.

My books:
are both designed to help with reaching the related standard ISO 50001 for energy management. Click on the links for more information.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Radical Carbon Offsetting: A New idea To Finance Climate Action

Last time I wrote about my despair at the idea that global leaders can ever agree to effectively slow or even reverse the growth of greenhouse gas emissions and save their peoples from the catastrophic effects of serious climate change.

I suggested that the only way to avert disaster this would be to pay fossil fuel companies to leave the gas, oil and coal in the ground because as long as it is profitable to remove it, they will do so. Just as countries with valuable rainforests need to be paid not to fell them, so companies whose profits rest upon the extraction of fossil fuels would demand to be compensated for not doing so.

The bottom line is that concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have continued to increase regardless of any international negotiations. The challenge for Paris 2015 is to find an agreeable legal framework that every nation can sign up to that is actually effective. It does not matter what people say; only the measured results count. Given that by 2020, when any legally binding agreement takes force, we will have passed the point at which emissions can be limited to 450 ppm, it will become necessary not only to reduce emissions but also to remove carbon from the atmosphere in order to make the future safe for the majority of the human population. That is why I have come up with this proposal.

The solution I'm proposing I am calling radical carbon offsetting. Conventional carbon offsetting involves paying someone to invest in a renewable energy project. A prime example of this is the Clean Development Mechanism associated with the Kyoto Protocol, a key criteria of which is that any power generation project financed must be additional to those which would have happened anyway. But key areas of doubt have always been about whether any project can truly be additional, and whether the provision of power always leads to a thirst for more power – which may not be renewably supplied.

Radical carbon offsetting, by contrast, involves capturing carbon from the atmosphere and putting it in a place where it cannot escape, at least for the foreseeable future. Radical carbon offsetting schemes would permit the extraction of fossil fuels providing that an adequate and equivalent amount of carbon was removed from the atmosphere to that which will be released by the fossil fuels' combustion.

Fossil fuel companies would finance radical carbon offsetting schemes involving technologies some of which are traditional and some of which are currently in development and expensive but which, when they achieve scale, would be cost competitive. They would help accelerate their route to market.

Removing atmospheric carbon 

Removing atmospheric carbon at scale is the only way that the current rate of increase of concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere can be reduced and perhaps even reversed so that it may reach again the safe limit of 350 ppm which it was around the middle of the last century. Currently it is at 400 ppm and the international negotiations that are ongoing are designed to limit the maximum concentration to 450 ppm, at which it is alleged global average temperature rises would peak at 2°C.

During the Eocene geological period between 56 and 34 million years ago atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide was up to 4000 ppm. There were no ice caps and the sea level was much higher than today. The means by which it reduced to 350ppm, enabling human life to flourish, was, according to paleoceanographer and climatologist Professor Paul Pearson, through the carbonisation of calcium to create limestone. But this took millions of years.

What other, faster, techniques are there for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere? Below I list a few so that you can see the potential and the wide variety of opportunities that exist:

Techniques for removing atmospheric carbon 

Building with timber

Simply building with timber creates a market for forest products and encourages their plantation. Provided that the trees are harvested when mature and not allowed to decay (emitting methane) then they will have absorbed a significant amount of atmospheric carbon. Using the timber in construction then locks away that carbon in the building fabric for at least the lifetime of the building. If we consider Tudor architecture and how many Tudor buildings survive today, we can see that timber is a durable construction material, so this lifetime can be long. And it's not just timber. Many building materials exist which are made from plants that will have absorbed atmospheric carbon, including forms of insulation, cladding, sheeting, flooring and so on.

Zero or negative carbon concrete

Concrete accounts for around 5-8 % of total CO2 emissions in the form of greenhouse gases, making it the third highest producer of CO2 after transport and energy generation. A major disadvantage of concrete is its large carbon footprint, one tonne of Portland cement resulting in the emission of approximately one tonne of CO2. In conventional cement manufacture the majority of the CO2 is released from the conversion of limestone (CaCO3) to lime (CaO).

Whilst there are several low carbon cement alternatives in development, only two actually absorb atmospheric carbon. These are Hemcrete and magnesium silicate cement.
timber frame building with hempcrete

Building with timber and hemcrete. Courtesy Lime Technologies.

Hempcrete, a hemp-lime composite, is sold by Oxfordshire-based Hemcrete Projects. Hemp produces a very strong fibre which is used to bind the breathable lime to create a concrete-like product. The carbon locked up in the hemp compensates for carbon produced during lime manufacture, resulting in a zero-carbon building product which is excellent at regulating temperature and humidity inside buildings. The company has combined it with hemp-based insulation and wooden frames to create two products, Hembuild – used to build the wall of a building - and Hemclad, used for cladding timber frames – that can be manufactured off-site and quickly installed during construction. Both Hembuild and Hemclad products use a layer of Hemcrete on the inside, and a layer of hemp insulation on the outside, combining thermal inertia and insulation in a single product. Together they create a kit that can be used to construct a negative carbon building.

Hemcrete does not have the same tensile or resistive strength as Portland cement, but can be used for small buildings such as houses. It could not be used for the foundations of large buildings, roads, etc., so a different product will be needed. This would instead be cement made from the accelerated carbonation of magnesium silicate (commonly known as talc) under high temperature and pressure. The resulting carbonates are then heated at low temperatures to produce magnesium oxide, with the CO2 generated being recycled back in the process.

The use of magnesium silicate eliminates the CO2 emissions from raw materials processing. Also, the low temperatures required allow the use of fuels with low energy content or carbon intensity (i.e. biomass), thus potentially further reducing carbon emissions. Furthermore, production of the carbonates absorbs carbon dioxide by carbonating part of the manufactured magnesium oxide using atmospheric/industrial CO2. A number of companies are developing this method. Overall, manufacturers claim that making one tonne of cement using this method absorbs up to 100kg more CO2 than it emits, making it a carbon-negative product.

The only disadvantage of this (besides the current cost) is that magnesium silicate is not as evenly distributed throughout the world as the calcium carbonate in limestone that is used to create Portland cement.

(Aside: other techniques for making low carbon cement such as CeraTech's, which uses a process located at power plants to convert waste fly ash (otherwise landfilled) into a cement-like product, do not sequester atmospheric carbon, although they are laudable. The same is true for the high temperature cement-making process developed at George Washington University which a patent application says could be provided by concentrated solar thermal power, yielding a low-carbon cement at a price of $43/tonne.)

Zero carbon Hemcrete infographic 1
Zero carbon Hemcrete infographic 2

Zero-carbon concrete infographic, courtesy Cemfree: similar math applies to other brands.


Duke Energy is piloting a system at East Bend Natural Gas Power Station in Northern Kentucky that recycles the carbon dioxide in flue gas to grow algae in photobioreactors. The algae can later be fed into an anaerobic digester to produce methane gas that the power plant can burn for fuel, or it can be dried and processed into fish food or animal feed, or processed into biodiesel or even jet fuel. Ways to use algae as a third generation biofuel are being pioneered by many companies across the world.
Ethylene glycol

Liquid Light of Monmouth Junction, New Jersey is also intending to capture carbon dioxide from power plants' combustion processes using a technology currently being prototyped to produce ethylene glycol. This is a building block of products as diverse as polyester fibre, plastic bottles and antifreeze.

Acrylic acid

Dioxide Materials of champaign, Illinois, has another prototype in development aimed at producing acrylic acid – a constituent of paint and glue – from carbon dioxide. It has partnered with glue maker 3M to bring the product to market.

Carbon capture and storage

The last three examples place carbon capture and storage, the current great white hope of the fossil fuel industry, in perspective. Why go to all the trouble of piping the carbon dioxide to a nearby suitable geological repository when you can turn it into something profitable right on your doorstep, one might ask? The great expectations pinned upon CCS in the past have proved relatively chimeric because of the cost: power produced with add-on CCS is at least 20% more expensive – if not double the price. Yet the algae and glue- or plastic-making chemicals do not sequester the carbon – they turn it into a form which is temporarily out of the atmosphere but to which it can return (with algae almost immediately), so merely displacing fossil fuels. An advantage, true, but not as great as putting it out of reach for a century or more.
My proposal for radical carbon offsetting could provide a way of financing some of these projects and more. It would encourage innovation and new markets. I love the concept becaude it is a win-win-win solution: it has at least three benefits:

  1. we tackle global warming,
  2. create employment, and
  3. produce useful and valuable products that displace the need to burn fossil fuels.
To make the idea work, a global market for carbon with an appropriate price attached would be needed, plus, of course, a legal agreement that all countries in the world must sign up to. It could for example form part of the agreement being progressed for post-2015 by the UNFCCC. A summary of progress of the negotiations is here and the US' ideas for it are here. It's a distant hope for me, but at least it provides a potential route out of despair.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

The Failure of Political Leadership on Climate Change

Wales first minister Carwyn Jones Despite 26 years of international negotiations on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, these emissions have been steadily rising. It is clear that world leaders are incapable of committing themselves and their nations to the required measures. I witnessed this first hand last Thursday when I watched Wales' First Minister dodge question after question on whether he would take the necessary action.

Right: Carwyn Jones, Wales' First Minister.

A brief history of climate change and global negotiations

In June 1988 politicians and scientists attending the World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere in Toronto concluded that "humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment whose  ultimate consequences could be second only to a global nuclear war." The conference recommended a 20% reduction by 2005. At this point the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 350 ppm.

In November that year the new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has its first meeting in Geneva and was charged by the United Nations with assessing the state of scientific knowledge on climate change, evaluate its impacts and come up with realistic solutions. In August 1990 it produced its First Assessment Report. Subsequent reports have only changed the detail, not the general conclusions.

At the Rio Earth Summit, two years later, 154 nations took responsibility for the overwhelming majority of emissions and pledged to "aim to stabilize" those emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000. But the Kyoto Protocol wasn't ratified for a further five years. It bound 38 industrialized countries (called Annex 1 countries) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 5.2% below 1990 levels by 2012. Concentration of CO2 has now reached 358 ppm.

Later, President Bush made sure the United States never ratified the agreement and Canada withdrew in 2011. In 2012 an agreement for a second commitment period has never entered legal force.

In July 2009, G8 countries agreed that 2 degrees Celsius of average global warming above pre-industrial levels is a limit which should not be exceeded, but this would mean reducing global greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% by 2050 and emissions from developed countries should be reduced by 80% or more. It is agreed that global emissions must peak and then decline rapidly within the next five to ten years for this to be achieved.

In November of that year the Copenhagen Accord was signed to endorse the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol, but it is not a legally binding document. Concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere then reached 388ppm.

Now we are looking towards a legally binding global agreement next year, when concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere will be 400 ppm, but it will not take effect until 2020, and then it will still take some time for any effects to kick in.

Meanwhile, concentrations of greenhouse gases in the upper atmosphere continue to increase:

Major greenhouse gas trends 1979-2015

It's for this reason that I'm extremely pessimistic that it is possible for national leaders, whose agendas are all short-term, whose interests are local and subject to lobbying from special interest groups, have the courage or capacity to show the required level of leadership. Even Obama's recent efforts fall far short of the true level required.

Carwyn Jones plays the politicians' game

the Welsh Government’s 2010 Climate Change Strategy cover

The basis for his extreme pessimism was confirmed for me last Thursday. I had been invited to give evidence to the Committee for the Scrutiny of the First Minister in Wales about progress made to date in implementing the Welsh Government’s 2010 Climate Change Strategy for Wales. In particular, how actions to tackle the causes and consequences of climate change are being implemented by all departments of the Welsh Government and how this work is being co-ordinated and monitored.

Right: the Welsh Government’s 2010 Climate Change Strategy cover

Wales as a nation has a non-binding target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 3% per year to 40% of 1990 levels by 2020 in policy areas of over which it has control (some powers are not devolved but still held in London, such as control over transport spending and energy generation). This compares to the UK overall target of 34% reduction by 2020. Additionally, Wales is almost unique in the world by having the duty of government to take due account of sustainable development written into its constitution.

These facts alone would lead one to suppose that Wales was serious about tackling climate change. But let me tell you what happened in those meeting and committee rooms of the Welsh Government offices in Cardiff Bay on the afternoon of Thursday 26 June.

The first half of the event consisted of three members of the Committee for the Scrutiny of the First Minister quizzing members of the Climate Change Commission for Wales on what they thought the Committee should be asking Carwyn Jones (who is leader of the Welsh Labour Party).

The Commission's members represents a huge body of expert opinion from other organisations such as the Carbon Trust, the Energy Saving Trust, Sustrans, the Federation of Small Businesses, National Resources Wales, WWF, the One Planet Council, and even young people represented by the youth parliament known as Funky Dragon.

There was no shortage of extremely sound advice given to the Committee members. The key points were as follows:

  1. The First Minister should take overall responsibility for the climate change agenda, which he currently does not have, in order to show leadership and make sure that all government departments work together to achieve the targets;
  2. He should set statutory targets rather than the current non-binding ones;
  3. He should benchmark the current level of emissions in different sectors, by end-user;
  4. He should quantify by default the climate change impacts of all new developments as part of their impact assessment. In particular, reference was made to a proposed £1.5 billion new extension to the M4 around Newport;
  5. He should create a programme of action that would detail how the different sectors would act to reduce overall emissions, which currently does not exist.
There were many other excellent suggestions about land use, transport, education, planning, building regulations and renewable energy. If they were all put in place, Wales would be a beacon of low carbon sustainable development.

This part of the event concluded and the members of the Committee then withdrew to a Committee Room where they proceeded to quiz the Minister. Many of us stayed to watch the proceedings from the viewing gallery.

What happened? Well the first thing to note is that the Committee scrutinises the First Minister on many topics and few of its members are experts on climate change. The second is that as officials, it was clear that they somewhat lack the passion and commitment that the Commission on Climate Change members have. For these reasons they are not equipped to respond to the First Minister's rebuttals with knowledgable counter-arguments or with the necessary level of emotion. Urbane mandarins, their language is couched in measured and leisured terms.

Carwyn Jones was able to refute every suggestion without significant censure.

  1. He refused to take ultimate responsibility and show leadership on climate change as a cross-cutting topic because, he said, "there are many cross-cutting topics and I can't take responsibility for all of them. I leave climate change for others."
  2. He refused to set statutory targets for carbon reductions on the basis that the government does not have control over transport and energy spending.
  3. On the question of the M4 relief road he trotted out the line that cars in traffic jams will emit more greenhouse gases than having them freely moving. Yet, as Paul Pearson pointed out that evening, the consultancy document on the project never even calculated the total comparative carbon budgets for the options under consideration.
  4. On the question of why building regulations for the energy efficiency of new homes are being watered down, he said it was because Wales needed more new houses and the big building firms had told him that it was too expensive to make them low or zero carbon. Yet I know several developers who can build affordable zero carbon homes - but clearly Carwyn is not aware of them and nor were the members of the Committee.
Shortly after this, in despair, I walked out. Wales has an opportunity to shine on the world stage by showing leadership on climate change beyond that being shown in England by the Westminster government. But Carwyn Jones is not up to this challenge.

Jane Davidson, Wales former Environment MinisterThe environment minister who created Wales' climate change strategy, Jane Davidson (right), has sadly left government now. She was the driving force behind several policies that championed sustainable development. Unfortunately Wales no longer has any one of her calibre and commitment in government.

But Carwyn Jones is no different from virtually every other leader of a nation state in the world, as the history of climate change negotiations shows. The fear of missing short-term other targets for housing, jobs and the economy, makes them ignore the bigger picture. They do not have expert advisers on hand – or refuse to give sufficient weight to their advice – to help them understand the multiple economic as well as social and environmental benefits of taking the requisite actions. Instead they respond to the demands of industry lobbyists and a public largely unaware of the issues and potentials.

So, is it possible for the world to act to reduce and turnaround the seemingly inexorable growth of the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere? Increasingly there are calls from the business sector and leaders of cities for action, but for my part, I fear all this will result in action that is too small and too late. They just do not have the economic and legal clout. I believe what is really required is for people to be paid to leave carbon in the ground – because if there is money to be made then they will take it out and sell it – but this obviously will not happen.

Barring a miracle, within 300 years sea level will have risen by up to 10 metres, the ice caps will have melted, the equatorial areas of the planet will be uninhabitable, and humanity will have suffered a population collapse. The prediction made by the scientists meeting in June 1988 will have been shown to be correct. I do hope I am wrong.