Monday, April 23, 2018

NEWS POST: Goldman Prize Awarded To South African Women Who Stopped An International Nuclear Deal

Goldman Environment Prize Winners 2018: (Clockwise from Top Left) Manny Calonzo, Francia Márquez, Nguy Thi Khanh, LeAnne Walters, Makoma Lekalakala and Liz McDaid, Claire Nouvian. Photograph: 2018 Goldman Environmental Prize - Image source: Goldman Environmental Foundation
Winners of the world’s leading environmental award faced down Vladimir Putin and the country’s recently deposed leader, Jacob Zuma, to overturn a multibillion-dollar nuclear deal

Two grassroots women activists – one black, one white – stand together against two of the world’s most powerful men – one black, one white – over a secret, undemocratic, multibillion dollar nuclear deal.

If this was the plot of a Netflix series, it might be dismissed as too neat, too perfectly symbolic and symmetrical.

But this is the true story of the two South African winners of this year’s Goldman Environment Prize who tapped their roots in the anti-apartheid struggle to take on and beat an agreement by their nation’s recently deposed leader Jacob Zuma and Russian president, Vladimir Putin.

Makoma Lekalakala and Liz McDaid were the sole signatories of a successful legal challenge against the plan for South Africa to buy up to 10 nuclear power stations from Russia at an estimated cost of 1tn rand (US$76bn).

After a five-year legal battle, a high court outlawed the deal last April and accepted the plaintiffs’ claims that it had been arranged without proper consultation with parliament. Aside from the immense geopolitical ramifications, the ruling was a vindication for the civil society movement that aims to expand public participation, especially by woman, in energy decision-making.

There were risks in confronting the president, the electricity utility and the interests of a foreign power. The two women were warned they could face violence and attacks on their reputation, but they signed the legal papers regardless.

“It is important that this campaign is led by women,” Lekalakala said in an interview in Cape Town. “We are getting this [Goldman] prize because we really sacrificed ourselves by putting our names on the line. Others were shit-scared. But we’ve been through so much that we were willing to take the risk.”

McDaid, who works for the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute, said the campaign was a recognition that grassroots action can work. “Governments everywhere like to give the impression that citizens have no power. That’s not true. We have checks and balances and we need to use them.”

Both cut their activist teeth in the anti-apartheid struggle of the 1980s. McDaid, then a teacher, was caught up in the Trojan Horse massacre in Athlone, Cape Town. She hid students sought by police in her house and used her car to block troops chasing students.

Lekalakala grew up in Soweto, the heartland of the black consciousness movement. She served as a shop steward in a department store when she was 19 years old. She also witnessed some of the worst of the violence, both from the white authorities and black-on-black factional conflict. 

In the late eighties, an era when alleged apartheid collaborators were being punished with “necklaces” of burning tyres, she was woken by screams in the middle of the night and found bodies on the floor in the morning. “That was the hardest time of my life,” she recalls. 

This background has made the two women relatively fearless. They have both been threatened and suffered break-ins in which alarm systems were expertly dismantled and only their laptops (rather than valuables like jewellery or cameras) were stolen, suggesting the intruders were after information rather than money.

“It’s harassment,” said Lekalakala. “But I’m very forceful. I’m used to threats.”

The two began working together in 2009 when they joined Earthlife, a group designed to encourage women to become more involved in energy and climate policy-making.

For Lekalakala, it was an eye-opening experience. “When I started at Earthlife I was one of the only black women. I thought that was wrong. It is poor black women who are most affected but it is rich white men making all the decisions.”

They have proved influential, providing input into the National Energy Act and the climate energy policy. They challenged the long-held view that energy is a technical, engineering matter for specialists rather than ordinary people. “We broke that barrier and we are continuously breaking barriers,” said Lekalakala, who has also campaigned against plans for a coal mine at Thabametsi.

They were tipped off about the nuclear deal by the Russian group EcoDefence. Although the South African government had not told the public about the plan, its business partner, state-owned Rosatom initially posted an announcement on its website. This was quickly taken down but not before Earthlife made a copy that they used to rally opposition from environmentalists, faith groups, lawyers, and, the media.

Their court victory was a major setback for Putin’s plans to increase Russia’s income and influence, and may have contributed to the fall of Zuma after nine years in power. The president had reportedly fired two finance ministers in part because they were unwilling to approve the $76bn cost of the project. It was also a focus of corruption claims by political enemies and rivals in the ANC, given reports that Zuma’s son was a director of the sole mine that supplied uranium. 

The new government has signalled a shift in direction. President Cyril Ramaphosa said in Davos this year that the plan to add 9.6 gigawatts of nuclear energy was off the table. More recently, energy minister Jeff Radebe has signed deals that will promote wind and solar power.

“The political signs are good that nuclear is not going ahead any time soon,” said McDaid. “But I think this is just a step on the path to a nuclear-free South Africa. There is a long way to go. Success would be for our one existing plant to be decommissioned and for the government to make a nuclear-free declaration.”

Lekalakala agrees on the need to stay vigilant because coal - along with nuclear - remains a concern and the government will revisit its energy policy in five years.

“Civil society can claim some credit for ensuring the government didn’t run along a nuclear path that would have bankrupted the country,” she said. “We’ll use the Goldman award to further our struggle and build a new generation of activists.”
The Goldman Environment Prize - Image source: Goldman Environmental Foundation 
Michigan Water Activist, 6 Others Win Environmental Prize

A woman who played a key role in exposing the lead-tainted water disaster in Flint, Michigan, is among seven people from around the world to be awarded a Goldman Environmental Prize for grassroots environmental activism.

LeeAnne Walters was repeatedly rebuffed by Gov. Rick Snyder's administration, even as she confronted regulators with bottles of brown water that came from her kitchen tap. Finally, with critical help from a Virginia Tech research team and a local doctor, it was revealed in 2015 that Flint's water system was contaminated with lead due to a lack of treatment.

Walters, a mother of four, "worked tirelessly behind the scenes to bring justice to not only her immediate family but all residents of Flint," the Goldman Environmental Foundation said Monday in announcing this year's winners.

The prize was created in 1989 by the late San Francisco philanthropists Richard and Rhoda Goldman. Winners are selected from nominations made by environmental organizations and others. The prize carries a US$200,000 award.

Walters now lives in Virginia but regularly returns to Flint, where thousands of home water lines are being replaced due to the lead crisis. The city's water quality has improved since it stopped using the Flint River as its source after 18 months, although there are many concerns about lead that was ingested, especially by children.

The other winners are:

- Francia Marquez of Colombia, who rallied other women to vigorously oppose gold mining in the Cauca region.

- Claire Nouvian of France, who successfully campaigned against deep-sea fish trawling.

- Makoma Lekalakala and Liz McDaid of South Africa, who fought to stop a nuclear plant deal between their country and Russia.

- Manny Calonzo of the Philippines, who led an effort to ban lead paint.

- Khanh Nguy Thi of Vietnam, who used scientific research to discourage dependency on coal-fired power.

Originally (STORY 1) published on THE GUARDIAN UK and (STORY 2) published on AP WIRES 

Friday, April 20, 2018

NEWS POST: Japanese Companies See Big Things In Small-Scale Industrial Robots

Kawasaki Heavy Industries' collaborative robot stacks rice balls at Delicious Cook & Co's food factory in Narashino, Japan, April 17, 2018. REUTERS/Toru Hanai
A two-armed robot in a Japanese factory carefully stacks rice balls in a box, which a worker carries off for shipment to convenience stores. At another food-packaging plant, a robot shakes pepper and powdered cheese over pasta that a person has just arranged in a container.

In a country known for bringing large-scale industrial robots to the factory floor, such relatively dainty machines have until recently been dismissed as niche and low-margin. But as workforces age in Japan and elsewhere, collaborative robots - or “cobots” - are seen as a key way to help keep all types of assembly lines moving without replacing humans.

Japan’s Fanuc and Yaskawa Electric, two of the world’s largest robot manufacturers, didn’t see the shift coming. Now they are trying to catch up. “We didn’t expect large manufacturers would want to use such robots, because those robots can lift only a light weight and have limited capabilities,” said Kazuo Hariki, an executive director at Fanuc.

Although still a small portion of a US$40 billion industrial robot market, the cobots segment is set to grow over the next decade to more than US$10 billion, by some estimates - several dozen times its current size.

The concept of a robot co-worker is relatively new. Danish company Universal Robots, founded in 2005, introduced cobots for industrial applications in late 2008, closely working with major German automakers such as Volkswagen (VOWG_p.DE).

At first, “a lot of people misunderstood what the cobot is,” said Universal Robots’ chief executive, Juergen von Hollen. But the machines quickly became popular in Europe because of their safety, simplicity and ability to directly assist human workers, he said.

Supported by Berlin’s “Industrie 4.0” strategy to promote smart factories, the likes of Kuka and Robert Bosch followed Universal Robots into the market in the early 2010s.

Relatively inexpensive and easy to operate, cobots are now used by companies of all sizes for small-batch manufacturing and simple processes. In Japan, food maker Nippon Flour Mills uses a cobot made by Kawasaki Heavy Industries for seasoning packaged food sold at convenience stores. “Labour costs are rising, with more intense competition to hire workers,” said Atsushi Honda, technology team manager at Nippon Flour’s plant engineering group.

Automating some tasks with machines that didn’t need to be separated from human employees helped the company solve that labor issue, he said.

REUTERS/Toru Hanai
A Slow Start
Industry analysts say Japanese robot makers, in addition to underestimating the appeal of cobots, were held back in their home market by government safety regulations. Heavy industrial robots had to be fenced off from human contact. Robots that worked in closer proximity to people were limited in how powerful they could be.

The restrictions on cobots were relaxed in late 2013 to match international standards. Japanese robotmakers remained cautious at first, but are now trying to dash into the market.

Fanuc in February bought Life Robotics Inc, whose clients include Toyota Motor Corp and Omron Corp, for an undisclosed amount. It was the first acquisition in 15 years for Fanuc, known among investors for its huge cash pile. Rival Yaskawa Electric released its first cobot last year.

Both, however, lag far behind Universal Robots, which still has roughly 60 percent of the global market and is now owned by Teradyne, according to analysis firm BIS Research. Fanuc has 6 to 10% market share, and Yaskawa’s share is even smaller.

Yaskawa’s head of robotics, Masahiro Ogawa, said he was confident the company could grow as customers looked for more sophisticated models. “As users get used to handling cobots, they will have more advanced and diverse demands. We have the capacity to better meet such demands,” Ogawa said.

Mitsubishi Electric Corp plans to launch a cobot early next year aimed at users such as electronics makers and logistics companies, said Katsutoshi Urabe, senior manager in charge of the company’s robot sales.

Kawasaki Heavy, another engineering giant that entered the market in 2015, tied up with Swiss rival ABB last year. The two companies plan to standardize cobot programming, said Tomonori Sanada, who is in charge of Kawasaki’s robot marketing and sales planning.

REUTERS/Toru Hanai
But Universal Robots’ von Hollen was unfazed by the interest of such heavyweights, saying the market would grow to accommodate new competitors. His company, which reported a 72%jump in revenue to US$170 million last year, expects to grow at least 50%in 2018.

“Probably only 10% of our target market really knows about collaborative robots,” he said. “So there is 90% potential that is gone untapped.”

Originally published on REUTERS

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

NEWS POST: XIAN SMOG TOWER PROJECT - China Builds ‘World’s Biggest Air Purifier’ (And It Seems To Be Working)

A 100-metre high air purification tower in Xian in Shaanxi province has helped reduce smog levels in the city, preliminary results suggest. Standing between high-rises, the giant air purifier is capable of cleaning between 5 million and 18 million cubic meters of air each day, depending on the weather, season, and level of pollution, according to South China Morning Post
An experimental tower over 100 metres (328 feet) high in northern China – dubbed the world’s biggest air purifier by its operators – has brought a noticeable improvement in air quality, according to the scientist leading the project, as authorities seek ways to tackle the nation’s chronic smog problem.

The tower has been built in Xian in Shaanxi province and is undergoing testing by researchers at the Institute of Earth Environment at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The head of the research, Cao Junji, said improvements in air quality had been observed over an area of 10 square kilometres (3.86 square miles) in the city over the past few months and the tower has managed to produce more than 10 million cubic metres (353 million cubic feet) of clean air a day since its launch. Cao added that on severely polluted days the tower was able to reduce smog close to moderate levels.

The system works through greenhouses covering about half the size of a soccer field around the base of the tower. Polluted air is sucked into the glasshouses and heated up by solar energy. The hot air then rises through the tower and passes through multiple layers of cleaning filters.

“The tower has no peer in terms of size … the results are quite encouraging,” said Cao.

Xian can experience heavy pollution in winter, with much of the city’s heating relying on coal. The tower’s operators say, however, that the system still works in the cold months as coatings on the greenhouses enable the glass to absorb solar radiation at a much higher efficiency. Cao’s team set up more than a dozen pollution monitoring stations in the area to test the tower’s impact.

The average reduction in PM2.5 – the fine particles in smog deemed most harmful to health – fell 15% during heavy pollution.

Cao said the results were preliminary because the experiment is still ongoing. The team plans to release more detailed data in March with a full scientific assessment of the facility’s overall performance.

The Xian smog tower project was launched by the academy in 2015 and construction was completed last year at a development zone in the Chang’an district. The purpose of the project was to find an effective, low cost method to artificially remove pollutants from the atmosphere. The cost of the project was not disclosed.

What was previously thought to be the largest smog tower in China was built last year by Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde at 798, a creative park in Beijing.

The seven-metre (23-feet) tall tower produced about eight cubic metres (282.5 cubic feet) of clean air per second. It was entirely powered by electricity, most of which is generated by coal-fired power plants in China.

Cao, however, said their tower in Xian required little power to run. “It barely requires any power input throughout daylight hours. The idea has worked very well in the test run,” he said.

Several people in Xian told the South China Morning Post they had noticed the difference since the tower started operating. A manager at a restaurant about 1km (0.62 miles) northwest of the facility said she had noticed an improvement in air quality this winter, although she was previously unaware of the purpose of the tower. “I do feel better,” she said.

A student studying environmental science at Shaanxi Normal University, also a few hundred metres from the tower, said the improvement was quite noticeable. “I can’t help looking at the tower each time I pass. It’s very tall, very eye-catching, but it’s also very quiet. I can’t hear any wind going in or out,” she said. “The air quality did improve. I have no doubt about that.”

However, a teacher at the Meilun Tiancheng Kindergarten on the edge of the 10-square-kilometre (3.86-square-mile) zone said she had felt no change. “It’s just as bad as elsewhere,” she said.

The experimental facility in Xian is a scaled-down version of a much bigger smog tower that Cao and his colleagues hope to build in other cities in China in the future. A full-sized tower would reach 500 metres (1,640 feet) high with a diameter of 200 metres (656 feet), according to a patent application they filed in 2014. The size of the greenhouses could cover nearly 30 square kilometres (11.6 square miles) and the plant would be powerful enough to purify the air for a small sized city.

Here’s How It Works: ØPolluted air is sucked up into greenhouses surrounding the base of the tower; ØSolar power is used to heat the air; ØAs the hot air rises up through the tower, it’s cleaned by multiple layers of filters; ØThe cleaner air exits through the top of the tower
NEWS POST: China Fights Big Smog With Big Air Purifier
China has a found a novel way to tackle its massive air pollution problem: Putting up a giant air purifier the size of an industrial smokestack in the middle of a smog-plagued city. Instead of pumping out billows of black smoke like the chimneys rising from factories in the northern province of Shaanxi, the 60-meter (197-foot) tall structure on the outskirts of the regional capital Xian blasts clean air.

Standing between high-rises, the device is capable of cleaning between five million and 18 million cubic meters of air each day, depending on the weather, season, and level of pollution, according to a report by the Chinese website Thecover.cn.

The tower can reduce the density of PM 2.5 -- the tiny airborne particles considered most harmful to health -- by between 10 and 19 percent in a 10 square kilometer (3.9 square mile) area, the website said.

PM 2.5 can play a role in heart disease, stroke, and lung ailments such as emphysema and cancer.

For now, the facility -- which was built in June 2016 -- is just an experiment. But its designers hope to build similar towers across the city. Cao Junji, an environmental protection expert at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told reporters that it would take about 100 towers to cover the city of 1,000 square kilometres (385 square miles). A lot of people have questioned the device's effectiveness, he said.

"I questioned it myself. But when we finished, the results were quite good. They met our expectations."

China's government declared "war" on pollution in 2014. Pollution is so bad in many regions that people often wear masks on the street and buy expensive air purifiers for their homes. This past winter, China cut production for many steel smelters, mills and factories.

The environment ministry imposed tough anti-pollution targets on 28 cities around Beijing, with at least three million homes expected to switch from coal to gas or electric heating.

China's air quality improved in 2017, with the average level of PM 2.5 particles falling by 6.5% in 338 cities, according to environmental authorities.

A University of Chicago study found last year that air pollution in northern China had cut life expectancy by three years compared with the south of the country. But a new study by the university in March found that China had made so much progress against smog that life expectancy could rise by more than two years.

Giant Air Purifier - The experimental facility in Xian is a scaled-down version of a much bigger smog tower that Cao and his colleagues hope to build in other cities in China in the future. A full-sized tower would reach 500 metres (1,640 feet) high with a diameter of 200 metres (656 feet), according to a patent application they filed in 2014. The size of the greenhouses could cover nearly 30 square kilometres (11.6 square miles) and the plant would be powerful enough to purify the air for a small sized city.
Originally published (STORY 1) on SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST and (STORY 2) on AFP WIRES