Monday, February 14, 2022

Emerging evidence suggests COVID-19 was worsened by air pollution

Nothing like that "emerging evidence". But they don't actually quote any. The Dutch study was just modelling.

I have followed the literature on air pollution and health for many years and the effects reported are always negligible

As science reveals more and more links between air pollution and the effects of COVID-19, the pressure is mounting on the European Commission to set high ambitions in the upcoming revision of the EU’s Air Quality Directive.

It is no secret that air pollution is heavily associated with a wide range of diseases. And now scientists have started new research in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic: the relation between infectious diseases, such as COVID-19, and air pollution.

At an event hosted by the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA) Thursday (February 10), two scientists made it clear that there is an increasing amount of evidence that the levels of air pollution could have worsened the spread and severity of COVID-19.

A study by the Dutch consultancy CE Delft investigating the situation in the Netherlands states that “if air pollution were lower, fewer COVID-19 control measures would have been necessary” and “had policy efforts to prevent air pollution been stronger, significant social costs could have been prevented.”

But despite these initial results, more research is needed in the field.

“The relationship between air pollution and virus transmissibility is still uncertain, so we need more research (…). Nevertheless, we can say that the relationship between air pollution and virus transmission forms an additional argument for ambitious air quality policy,” said Daan Juijn, co-author of the Dutch study ‘Air pollution and COVID-19’.

He was supported by Annette Peters, a researcher at Helmholtz Munich’s Institute of Epidemiology, who has also been looking into this issue:

“There is emerging evidence that air pollution is linked to infectious diseases, something we may have overlooked before. The pandemic situation is complex and studies are needed to understand the impacts fully, so it’s still early days. However, action to reduce air pollution is needed,” she said at the event.

The Dutch study focused on the COVID-19 situation and levels of air pollution in the Netherlands, concluding that their results indicate “the social costs [both economic and non-economic such as eg well-being] of the additional COVID-19 control measures that were required due to air pollution amount to around €11 billion. This equals around 1.5% of Dutch GDP.”

In that context, Juijn pointed out that these numbers could be higher in countries with higher levels of air pollution. Both he and Peters called for more research in the area.

Air pollution in Europe still killing 300,000 a year: EEA
Premature deaths caused by fine particle air pollution have fallen 10% annually across Europe, but the invisible killer still accounts for 307,000 premature deaths a year, the European Environment Agency said Monday (15 November).

If the latest air quality guidelines from …

Higher ambitions in the updated Air Quality Directive

Lockdowns enforced to contain the spread of COVID-19 led to a temporary increase in air quality. Despite this, the European Environment Agency (EEA) said in a report in November 2021 that air pollution still accounts for 307,000 premature deaths a year in Europe alone.

The EEA’s air quality viewer shows the levels of fine particulate matter measured in cities in Europe, which reveals that the largest proportion of the most polluted cities is in the eastern and southern parts of the continent.

Following the launch of the World Health Organisation’s new Global Air Quality Guidelines in September, the European Commission has begun to look into a revision of the EU’s Air Quality Directive, which dates back to 2008, and is set to present its proposal in the third quarter of this year.

It will take a lot of effort to reach the very ambitious goals set by the WHO, Vicente Franco, policy officer at the Commission’s DG Environment, said at the event.

“Everything is on the table,” he said, adding that along with reviewing the legislative framework, they are reviewing many elements such as sanctions, the use of air quality modelling, improvements on how monitoring is done, and how member states should prepare air quality plans.

“One of the elements of feedback that we got from stakeholders, including member states, is that perhaps these aspects of monitoring, modelling and air quality plans were under-specified in the directive, and they would welcome a higher level of harmonisation of specification of how things should be done,” Franco said.

Until then, said Ugo Taddei, director of nature and health at Client Earth NGO, “we need very strong policies to put us on the right track to tackle this human health crisis caused by air pollution because the figures are quite shocking”.

“This needs a very strong answer from policymakers and civil society.”


Russian gas crisis stokes Europe’s appetite for ... Russian coal

Russian coal merchants are proving to be the winners as European buyers, nervous a feared Russian invasion of Ukraine could lead to disrupted gas supplies, stock up on the dirtiest fossil fuel.

Despite Europe’s ambitions to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by the middle of the century, which means weaning itself off all fossil fuels, but especially coal, the continent has been switching to coal from gas since the middle of last year.

Even before the current risk invasion and possible Western sanctions on Russia could choke off gas from Europe’s biggest gas supplier, fuel buyers responded to record high gas prices.

The European Union’s coal imports rose by 55.8% in January versus a year ago, to 10.8 million tonnes – of which Russia supplied 43.2% – analysis from shipbroker Braemar ACM, based on ship tracking data, found.

Australia provided around 19.1%.

EU coal imports also rose in December 2021 by 35.1% year-on-year to 9.3 million tonnes.

For 2021 as a whole, imports of Russian thermal coal into Europe, of which the majority is shipped to Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, rose to 31.1 million tonnes, a year-on-year increase of 16.2%, Braemar analysis showed.

European politicians say Russia has helped to cause the record gas prices by witholding supplies, a charge Russia denies.

Russia has said it is meeting contractual agreements to European customers and that prices would fall if Germany gave approval to the Gazprom-backed Nord Stream 2 pipeline because that would increase shipments of Russian gas to Europe.

Meanwhile, the high gas prices are expected to continue to lead to high coal demand.

The International Energy Agency said this week that European gas demand is expected to decline by 4.5% this year as coal is cheaper for power generation


Europe’s Net-Zero Carbon crackup begins ahead of schedule

Joseph C. Sternberg

At the end of last year, I predicted that 2022 would be the year politicians stepped back from the climate-policy cliff. I allowed too much time. It happened in January.

Or rather, January was the month the political class decided they wanted to step away from the cliff. Now we wait to see if they can.

The European Commission, the bureaucratic wing of the European Union in Brussels, moved on New Year’s Eve to classify natural gas and nuclear as potential green energy sources in a “taxonomy” designed to steer government spending and private investment. It has stuck by that decision despite noisy protests from environmentalists. This is a recognition that foreclosing investment in proven, reliable technologies amid a once-in-a-generation energy price crisis is creating a political nightmare.

Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s net-zero fixation has become the biggest threat to his political future, a far more serious danger than any lockdown-defying birthday party. British households last week discovered their home electricity and natural-gas bills could shoot up by 54% come April as a regulatory price cap adjusts to market realities. Energy costs for commercial premises are a separate crisis, as rapidly escalating electricity and natural-gas prices squeeze small businesses and large manufacturers alike.

Real politics finally is breaking out in response. A group of lawmakers from Mr. Johnson’s Conservative Party have formed a caucus to vent their skepticism of Mr. Johnson’s net-zero ambitions, while Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak professes his enthusiasm for more North Sea drilling. The left-wing Guardian newspaper trotted out climate-change scaremonger Michael Mann to brand this effort a “culture war.” Which is how we now describe any effort to repoliticize questions of economic and social trade-offs that an axis of technocrats, activists and media had tried to assume unto itself.

The political world is awakening belatedly to an observation prominent French economist Jean Pisani-Ferry offered last year. To paraphrase: Because carbon-based energy is cheap and reliable and zero-carbon alternatives remain elusive, current consumption will have to be suppressed to finance aggressive investment in developing zero-carbon technology.

This is taking two forms today. Astronomical energy prices are the mechanism by which consumption based on carbon (whether of energy or of any product whose manufacture or distribution requires carbon—which is most products) can be suppressed while diverting resources to research and development in green technologies.

Second, someone must induce financial investment to shift to green purposes, even if investors otherwise would have concluded that strategy doesn’t maximize returns. Retirees or anyone else whose consumption is based on income from investment may have to receive less income and therefore consume less in order to subsidize capital allocation to green ends.

No wonder politicians are fleeing. Witness a kerfuffle, again in the U.K., over taxing the “windfall profits” of oil-and-gas majors such as BP and Shell, which recently announced bumper earnings. The companies are accused of gouging consumers, but the actual plan as announced to their shareholders is to plow carbon profits into an expanding portfolio of green projects.

This is possible only by shifting resources away from consumers via higher prices. Whoops. Any form of consumption tax, whether by levy or by price-raising regulation, is highly regressive. Calls by Britain’s Labour Party for a windfall-profits tax to redistribute those reinvestable profits back to consumers, in contravention of the whole point of net-zero policies, mark an admission that climate mitigation is an impending political train wreck. Maybe one day the left will understand what they themselves are saying here.

Can the train be stopped? Politicians will try, and are due to get a reminder about the importance of long-term thinking. Boosting energy supply depends on persuading investors that politicians support long-term investments. Net zero comes with a deadline of 2050, but that needs to be scrapped right now for investors to be willing to finance capital-intensive projects with long enough lives to be useful.

The danger is that investors won’t be willing to do that when politicians belatedly come begging. Recent years have seen a concerted effort by climate activists and various enthusiastic enablers in the financial world to co-opt private capital in pursuit of green aims. Hence the rise of so-called ESG investing—the E standing for “environmental.” Politicians in their more foolish moments have been happy to help, as with efforts to embed such principles in financial regulation.

The political class will be sorry as this shift makes it harder for politicians to assuage angry voters. The EU’s taxonomy is meant to subvert the ESG push by encouraging investors to treat natural gas and nuclear as green. Investors intoxicated by their own virtue signaling might not be encourageable. “Investors may now need to consider going further than the taxonomy requires in order to align with net zero,” Stephanie Pfeifer of the Institutional Investors Group for Climate Change, an umbrella group for pension funds and other asset managers, said recently.

The politicians’ challenge is to wrest well-functioning energy and financial markets back from a financial, activist and media class that seems unshaken by the anticonsumption, income-redistribution miseries their agenda is inflicting. Culture war, indeed.


Australia: The great hydrogen controversy

This week has seen an amusing to and fro of ads from the federal government about its commitment to “clean hydrogen” and counter ads from iron ore billionaire Andrew Forrest, who has ­become a “green hydrogen” ­evangelist.

The brightly coloured ads, with their cartoon pictures of a truck carrying “hydrogen” (in the case of the government ad), or “green hydrogen” (in the case of those by Forrest’s Fortescue Future Industries) have been a welcome addition to newspaper advertising revenue, which is (hopefully) set to benefit even more from the ­approaching federal election.

The government ad declares that “a clean hydrogen industry is part of our plan to reach net zero by 2050”. Scott Morrison sees “clean hydrogen” as being an ­essential part of the nation’s technology-led move to zero carbon by 2050.

But Forrest strongly rejects the idea that the Prime Minister’s version of “clean hydrogen” – which includes hydrogen made from fossil fuels – is clean.

FFI’s counter ad declares: “A green hydrogen industry is our plan to reach net zero by 2030.”

Forrest argues that only green hydrogen is clean hydrogen. All the other types, as he explains in the ad, are made from fossil fuel such as coal or gas and are not clean.

Forrest argues that the greenhouse gas footprint of what he calls “blue hydrogen” – hydrogen made from fossil fuels – can actually be as much as 20 per cent larger than burning natural gas or coal for heat.

The ads confirm two things – that the nuances of climate change and energy policy will be a major issue in the election campaign, and that business will be at the forefront of change.

It was only the last election that Morrison and his team led a scare campaign about Labor’s electric vehicles plans. Last year, he took a big step forward (for his party) by outlining his own policy to facilitate the use of electric cars.

Once seen primarily as being a threat to jobs in the coalmining industry, climate change and green business has become big business, with almost every company having a commitment to become more energy efficient, to shift their own company’s reliance on coal-fired energy to more renewable energy, and making some form of commitment to net zero carbon emissions.

A few years ago, the average Australian knew little about hydrogen energy. Now the debate is not whether hydrogen energy will be part of Australia’s clean energy future, but what sort of hydrogen it will be and how we will get there.

While each major company has been on its own journey through, Forrest has become a poster boy for the big shift.

Having made his billions from exporting iron ore to China, he is now recycling a large chunk into clean energy subsidiary FFI, which was set up in 2020.

Some of Forrest’s followers, and some of his more traditional shareholders, have questioned his motives in his big shift to renewable energy.

Forrest has committed to spending 10 per cent of Fortescue Metals’ profits on FFI projects.

He argues that any projects FFI commits to will be externally funded without having recourse to the Fortescue Metals balance sheet.

Forrest is approaching his new-found fervour for green hydrogen with evangelical zeal, having spent a lot of time in 2020 and 2021 signing up new hydrogen energy deals for FFI.

Not all Fortescue Metals investors like it. Many traditional mining investors don’t, as has been pointed out by articles in this newspaper.

But then again, there is a new range of climate-conscious institutional investors – including pension funds, super funds and other funds – pushing companies to become greener.

Los Angeles-based Capital Group last month announced that it had bought a 5 per cent stake in Fortescue, becoming its third-largest shareholder for a cost of about $3bn.

In comments made in December, Forrest said FFI now had the largest single portfolio of green hydrogen, green ammonia, green iron ore, green iron and other green product developments in the world. He said the number of shareholders in Fortescue Metals had “increased exponentially” since FFI was announced. The total number of shareholders has almost tripled over the past two years – from 60,000 to 170,000.

Fortescue Metals’ share price is affected by the price of iron ore, its biggest single commodity, making it hard to pull apart its ups and downs. Its shares rose from $10.12 in January 2020 to $24.76 in January last year on the back of soaring iron ore prices.

They slumped to just over $14 in October last year on the back of slowing prices and – some critics would argue – concern about how much money was going into the FFI expansion.

Since then, as more details of FFI emerge, its price has recovered to above $21.

Fortescue Metals will release its half-yearly results next Wednesday, and we can expect to hear more about the company’s plans for FFI.

FFI chief executive Julie Shuttleworth, who has gone on a wild global ride into green hydrogen with Forrest, must be considered a serious contender as a replacement for Elizabeth Gaines, who has announced her plans to step down from the role of Fortescue Metals chief executive.

In a report this week, analysts at Goldman Sachs said Australia had the potential to become the world’s biggest exporter of hydrogen, competing with the Middle East, Chile and North America for the title. Another major report released on Thursday by ANZ also talks about Australia’s potential as a global exporter of hydrogen.

The debate over the potential of hydrogen energy, including how clean it is, is only just beginning in Australia. Either way, the debate over the potential of Australia’s hydrogen energy potential is set to heat up, with major implications for corporate Australia and its investors.




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