North America’s Devastating Wildfires, Viewed From Space
If you live on the west coast of North America, it’s likely that you’ve felt a bit smoked out, lately.
Wildfires in British Columbia, Canada are already the worst in the province’s history, while California has had a particularly rough season with human deaths, evacuations, and billions of dollars of damage.
Oregon has one confirmed death from a wildfire in mid-July, and Washington hasn’t gotten off easy, either. On July 31, 2018 a state of emergency was declared in the Evergreen State.
Visualizing Wildfires From Space
Today’s image comes to us from NASA, and it shows aerosols around the world including those originating from volcanoes, desert dust, cloud cover, sea-salt – and of course, smoke.
Here’s the same image with labels, indicating black carbon on the west coast of the continent:
The wildfires are just as visible as the massive slash-and-burning occurring in Central Africa, hurricanes and typhoons, and even the dust swirling up from the Sahara, the world’s largest desert.
Here’s a visualization of the fires in North America, with some extra zoom:
It’s clear from this image that smoke isn’t just affecting the coast – in fact, experts say it has been travelling as far as Ireland, in lesser concentrations of course.
While we thought the visualization above was the most striking, there are countless of other examples from the last month that show the extent of wildfires and smoke on the west coast.
Here’s another shot from NASA from a few weeks ago, during peak wildfire season in California and Oregon:
And here’s an image of Seattle and Vancouver from mid-August, when smoke from Canadian fires was so bad in those cities that it was like “inhaling seven cigarettes” per day:
As we roll into September, the worst of the wildfire season is over.
Unfortunately, it’s already been the worst in British Columbia’s history. Here are the 10 worst fire seasons graphed since 1950, based on square kilometers burned:
Data as of Aug 29, 2018, and from the BC Forest Service
While this year has been an anomaly, it may also be a preview of what’s to come. One recent report out of California said that the number of wildfires over 25,000 acres is likely to increase by 50% leading up to 2050.
Is this the new normal?
Mapping the Flow of the World’s Plastic Waste
Every year, the United States exports almost one million tons of plastic waste, including ‘recycled’ materials. Where does all of this waste go?
Mapping the Flow of the World’s Plastic Waste
The first plastic material, Bakelite, was invented in 1907. It made its way into everything you can imagine: telephones, chess pieces, Chanel jewelry, and electric guitars.
But it was in 1950 that our thirst for plastic truly began. In just 65 years, plastic production soared almost 200 times, resulting in about 6,300 million metric tons of waste today.
How does the world deal with this much debris? The truth is, a lot of plastic waste—both trash and recycled materials—is often shipped overseas to become someone else’s problem.
The Top Exporters and Importers of Plastic Waste
In honor of International Plastic Bag-Free day, today’s graphic uses data from The Guardian to uncover where the world’s plastic waste comes from, and who receives the bulk of these flows.
|Top Exporters, Jan-Nov 2018||Top Importers, Jan-Nov 2018|
|🇺🇸 United States||961,563 tons||🇲🇾 Malaysia||913,165 tons|
|🇯🇵 Japan||891,719 tons||🇹🇭 Thailand||471,724 tons|
|🇩🇪 Germany||733,756 tons||🇻🇳 Vietnam||443,615 tons|
|🇬🇧 United Kingdom||548,256 tons||🇭🇰 Hong Kong||398,261 tons|
The U.S. could fill up 68,000 shipping containers with its annual plastic waste exports. Put another way, 6,000 blue whales would weigh less than this nearly one million tons of waste exports.
Given the amount of plastic which ends up in our oceans, this comparison is just cause for alarm. But one interesting thing to note is that overall totals have halved since 2016:
- Top 21 total exports (Jan-Nov 2016): 11,342,439 tons
- Top 21 total exports (Jan-Nov 2018): 5,828,257 tons
- Percentage change (2016 to 2018): -49%
The world didn’t suddenly stop producing plastic waste overnight. So what caused the decline?
China Cuts Ties with International Plastic Imports
Over recent years, the trajectory of plastic exports has mimicked the movement of plastic waste into China, including the steep plummet that starts in 2018. After being the world’s dumping ground for decades, China enacted a new policy, dubbed “National Sword”, to ban foreign recyclables. The ban, which includes plastics, has left the world scrambling to find other outlets for its waste.
In response, top exporters quickly turned to other countries in Southeast Asia, such as Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand.
That didn’t completely stop plastic waste from seeping through, though. China previously imported 600,000 tons of plastic monthly, but since the policy only restricted 24 types of solid waste, 30,000 tons per month still entered the country post-ban, primarily from these countries:
- 🇮🇩 Indonesia: 7,000 tons per month
- 🇲🇾 Malaysia: 6,000 tons per month
- 🇺🇸 United States: 5,500 tons per month
- 🇯🇵 Japan: 4,000 tons per month
Many countries bearing the load of the world’s garbage are planning to follow in China’s footsteps and issue embargoes of their own. What does that mean for the future?
Recycle and Reuse; But Above All, Reduce
The immense amounts of plastic waste sent overseas include recycled and recyclable materials. That’s because most countries don’t have the means to manage their recycling properly, contrary to public belief. What is being done to mitigate waste in the future?
- Improve domestic recycling
Waste Management is the largest recycling company in the United States. In 2018, it put $110 million towards building more plastic recycling infrastructure.
Meanwhile, tech giant Amazon invested $10 million in a fund that creates recycling infrastructure and services in different cities.
- Reduce single-use plastics
Recycling on its own may not be enough, which is why countries are thinking bigger to cut down on “throwaway” culture.
The European Union passed a directive to ban disposable plastics and polystyrene “clamshell” containers, among other items, by 2021. More recently, California passed an ambitious bill to phase out single-use plastics by 2030.
IMO 2020: The Big Shipping Shake-Up
IMO 2020, which sets ambitious emissions limits, is about to shake up maritime shipping. Today’s graphic covers the environmental and economic impacts
IMO 2020: The Big Shipping Shake-Up
Over 90% of all global trade takes place on our oceans.
Unfortunately, the network of 59,000 vessels powering international commerce runs on sulfur-laden bunker fuel, and resulting emissions are causing problems on dry land.
As today’s infographic by Breakwave Advisors demonstrates, new emissions regulations taking effect in 2020 will have a big impact on the world’s massive fleet of marine shipping vessels.
The Regulatory Impact
The International Maritime Organization (IMO) – the UN agency responsible for ensuring a clean, safe, and efficient global shipping industry – will be implementing new regulations that will have massive impact on maritime shipping.
The regulations, dubbed IMO 2020, will enforce a 0.5% sulfur emissions cap worldwide starting January 1, 2020 ─ a dramatic decrease from the current emissions cap of 3.5%.
Here are a few ways marine fuel will likely be affected by these regulations:
- High-sulfur fuel oil will drop in price as the demand drops dramatically after January 1, 2020
- Diesel, a low-sulfur fuel oil, will be in higher demand and should see a price increase
- Refiners should also expect higher profits as refining runs increase to satisfy the new regulations
The Economic Impact
IMO 2020 will be one of the most dramatic fuel regulation changes ever implemented, with a significant impact on the global economy.
New regulations are certain to influence freight rates ─ the fees charged for delivering cargo from place to place. These rates can fluctuate depending on:
- Time and distance between ports
- Weight and density of the cargo
- Freight classification
- Mode of transport
- Tariffs and taxes
- Fuel costs
Rising fuel costs means rising freight rates, with much of these costs being passed to consumers.
In a full compliance scenario, we estimate the total impact to consumer wallets in 2020 could be around US$240 billion.
─ Goldman Sachs
The Environmental Impact
Not surprisingly, the world’s 59,000 transport ships, oil tankers, and cargo ships have a consequential impact on the environment.
Bunker fuel accounts for 7% of transportation oil consumption (~3.5 million barrels/day). Burning this fuel generates about 90% of all sulfur oxide and dioxide (SOx and SO2) emissions globally. In fact, the world’s 15 largest ships produce more SOx and SO2 emissions than every car combined.
These sulfur emissions can cause several harmful side effects on land ─ acid rain, smog, crop failures, and many respiratory illnesses such as lung cancer and asthma.
Changing Currents in the Shipping Sector
As IMO 2020’s implementation date nears, shippers have a few courses of action to become compliant and manage costs.
1) Switch to low-sulfur fuel
Bunker fuel use in the shipping industry was 3.5 million barrels per day in 2018, representing roughly 5% of global fuel demand.
Annual bunker fuel costs are predicted to rise by US$60 billion in 2020, a nearly 25% increase from 2019. Price increases this significant will directly impact freight rates ─ with no guarantee that fuel will always be available.
2) Slower Travel, Less Capacity
The costs of refining low-sulfur fuel will increase fuel prices. To offset this, shippers often travel at slower speeds.
For example, large ships might burn 280-300 metric tons of high-sulfur fuel oil (HSFO) a day at high speeds, but only 80-90 metric tons a day at slower speeds. Slower travel may cut costs and help reduce emissions, but it also decreases the capacity these vessels can transport due to longer travel times, which shrinks overall profit margins.
3) Refueling Detours
Adequate fuel supply will be a primary concern for shippers once IMO 2020 takes effect. Fuel shortages would cause inefficiencies and increase freight rates even more, as ships would be forced to detour to refuel more often.
4) Installing Scrubbers
A loophole of IMO 2020 is that emissions are regulated, not the actual sulfur content of fuel itself.
Rather than burning more expensive fuel, many shippers may decide to “capture” sulfur before it enters the environment by using scrubbers, devices that transfer sulfur emissions from exhaust to a disposal unit and discharges the emissions.
With IMO 2020 looming, only 1% of the global shipping fleet has been retrofitted with scrubbers. Forecasts for scrubber installations by mid-2020 run close to 5% of the current ships on the water.
There are a few reasons for such low numbers of installations. First, scrubbers are still somewhat unproven in maritime applications, so shippers are taking a “wait and see” approach. As well, even if a ship does qualify for a retrofit, cost savings won’t take effect until several years after installation. On the plus side, ships with scrubbers installed will still be able to use the existing, widely-available supply of bunker fuel.
No matter which route shippers choose to take, the short-term impact is almost certainly going to mean higher freight rates for the marine shipping industry.
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