Short Thoughts: Clean Technology in China

This week, I’m at SXSW Eco and it’s awesome. I would have loved to have gone last year but tickets were prohibitively expensive and, much as I hate to admit it, 3 months into my time in Austin, I was still floundering. This year, I was able to get a ticket through my work, so I’m a very happy bunny. I’ll be posting about a few of the sessions over the next two weeks or so.

Of the four sessions I went to on Day 1, the one I found most interesting and most inspiring was a surprising one. I decided to deviate from my norm and skip a session on Feeding 9 Billion (gasp! I know) and go to one on Cleantech in China. Maybe a strange choice for me, but I’m feeling so frustrated by the lack of any global progress on reducing GHG emissions that I was really looking for something hopeful.

Image from The Guardian

To an extent, that’s what I got. I also got a much greater understanding of the importance of focusing our attentions outward, rather than constantly inward. Trying to improve the situation in the US is great, trying to improve the situation globally by sharing and expanding technologies is greater. Consider: in the US, one new power plant is switched on each year. In China, one new power plant is switched on every 5 days. The best place to make a real impact is clear. But traditionally, that hasn’t been where we’ve focused. While we’ve pointed a judgemental finger at countries with developing economies, like China and India, shifting much of the blame for climate change in their direction, we haven’t done much in the way of engaging with them to improve the situation. And these countries are in a much better place to make rapid improvements – their infrastructure isn’t calcified, they are in the process of building from the ground up.  These countries now have the same opportunities to make the decisions that we made a century ago. In the 1900s, there were only 8000 cars on the roads in the US – around 50% were steam powered, with the other 50% split almost evenly between electric and petrol. We made a choice – and it was the wrong one. To get the number of electric cars on the road now that we’d like to, we will need to make huge changes, ripping out and replacing existing infrastructure. With the number of people just now able to afford cars in countries like China, we can help them to do things right from scratch. More companies are starting to do that now, but it’s still a slow process – most start ups (understandably) work within the familiar, known quantity of the US and are not immediately willing to take on the challenge of overseas, often complex markets.

While I don’t doubt that China is entirely capable of ‘greening’ its industry and infrastructure on its own, I do think that there’s an amazing opportunity open at the moment for real global cooperation to reduce our GHG emissions and have an impact on the whole world, not just our own backyards.

Lies, damn lies and blurring the truth: CSG in Australia

Trying to get the truth in an issue as controversial as CSG/fracking is like looking for a needle in a haystack. The mining companies need to manipulate the truth to make an environmentally questionable process seem clean and green. The people against fracking don’t need to manipulate the truth – the facts are on their side. But they still twist things and it makes me furious – by doing so, they undercut their own legitimacy.

Consider the following FAQ from

[The] process involves pumping fluid comprising water, sand and other additives such as BTEX (BTEX is an acronym for benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene compounds) at high pressure down the cased CSG well and into the coal seam. This action fractures the coal seam and provides a pathway to facilitate gas flow through the coal.

True. No lies there at all. BTEX is usually used in the fracking process and it is a cocktail of extremely dangerous chemicals. What they fail to mention though, is that:

BTEX chemicals (benzene, tolulene, ethylbenzene and xylenes) are not used in Australian fraccing operations. Indeed,Queenslandand NSW have banned the use of BTEX chemicals in fraccing. (from the generally dubious website).

Why? Why would you fail to mention this, when frankly:

  • The list of chemicals still being used is pretty nasty, including

Boric acid

According to boric acid IUCLID Dataset published by the European Commission, boric acid in high doses shows significant developmental toxicity and teratogenicity in rabbit, rat, and mouse fetuses as well as cardiovascular defects, skeletal variations, mild kidney lesions.


Moderate respiratory exposure to 2-butoxyethanol often results in irritation of mucous membranes of the eyes, nose and throat. Heavy exposure via respiratory, dermal or oral routes can lead to hypotension, metabolic acidosis, hemolysis, pulmonary edema and coma. Luckily, it’s not known to bioaccumulate

Muriatic Acid

Concentrated hydrochloric acid (fuming hydrochloric acid) forms acidic mists. Both the mist and the solution have a corrosive effect on human tissue, with the potential to damage respiratory organs, eyes, skin, and intestines. Upon mixing hydrochloric acid with common oxidizing chemicals, such as sodium hypochlorite (bleach, NaClO) or potassium permanganate (KMnO4), the toxic gas chlorine is produced. And guess what? Sodium hypochlorite is also in the fracking fluids.


Methanol has a high toxicity in humans. If ingested, for example, as little as 10 mL of pure methanol can cause permanent blindness by destruction of the optic nerve, and 30 ml is potentially fatal, although a fatal dose is typically 100–125 ml (4 fl oz) (i.e. 1–2 ml/kg of pure methanol). The initial symptoms of methanol intoxication include central nervous system depression, headache, dizziness, nausea, lack of coordination, confusion, and with sufficiently large doses, unconsciousness and death

All these chemicals are from the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association Ltd Fact sheet. Wiki gave me the safety info…

  • The amount of water that is contaminated is enormous

While the amount of water used varies according to exactly the type of fracking that is taking place, it seems that it’s always an enormous amount of water that is pumped into the ground, contaminated and rendered unusable. This seems like a terrible idea in drought-prone Australia. Two years ago, they built a desalination plant in Sydney, as we were starting to run low on water for human use.

  • The GHG emissions from CSG are even higher than those of coal over the long term, especially when the risk of leakage is taken into account

[Robert Howarth, professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell University. suggests] that natural gas could even rival greenhouse gas emissions from mining and burning coal–the dirtiest of fossil fuels. He says it’s “not significantly better than coal in terms of the consequences of global warming” and is calling for a moratorium on extracting natural gas from shale, which requires more energy (and so emits more greenhouse gases) than extracting it from conventional natural gas sources.

Further to that, the risks posed by any methane leakage are incredible in terms of GHG emissions. Methane has a CO2 equivalent of 25, i.e. it’s 25 times more damaging than carbon dioxide.

I’ll still be there on Sunday. But I don’t want to see the truth about an issue this important getting blurry.

the first protest in years

If you are in Sydney, come along to this!

Why?  Watch this:

Also, I’m so sorry for the lack of posting/ briefer posts recently.  Normal posting should hopefully resume soon, but unfortunately, when the proverbial hits the fan in terms of uni work and work work, the first thing that falls behind is the blog.  Sad but true.  So I hope you’re ok with the short video posts until I get my shit together again!  There will definitely be more about CSG/fracking in the near future.