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How iCRAG’s research will form the bedrock of our green future

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Sam Cox takes a look inside the iCRAG research centre to find out how people can continue to extract what we need from the Earth without destroying it.

People move quickly. They live, work and adapt. Rocks, of course, are much slower. Continents will shift and their plants and weather systems will change. But, compared to their human inhabitants, such changes are nearly imperceptible. Years of research and study have proven the Earth isn’t quite so still.

In 2018, Greta Thunberg first appeared in the media spotlight, marking a new era of fresh voices in a decades-old battle. Carrying the mantel of Rachel Carson and the environmental movement, she represents the continuation of a debate that is influenced both by science and public opinion.

It is this interaction that is the core of iCRAG, the Science Foundation Ireland research centre for applied geosciences, which in February 2021 received €28m in SFI funding for the next five years.

For the rock-steady nature of the Earth and its components, it might seem strange that the conversation is so fraught. The minerals, ores and materials that form our Earth, that build our structures and run our machines are both protected and utilised in a balance that isn’t easy to reconcile. Environmental conservation doesn’t always equal preservation, as green energy relies on rare metals from the Earth that may be necessary to extract.

The interaction of these, both in their acquirement and in their use, goes on to influence our entire Earth system. As water flows through mountains and into the streams and rivers that feed our oceans, distant geographical areas become connected in all of their elements. What we put in and what we take out shifts the system’s balance, forcing it to seek a new equilibrium.

Explained in such terms, geology rockets in importance. Talk about the need for clean water and the public listens. Describe the lithium batteries for the future phones and electric cars that can fuel Elon Musk’s dreams, and investment flows. But mention the lithosphere, the atmosphere, the biosphere and any other geology-heavy terms, and the conversation often shuts down. iCRAG is about keeping that conversation going.

Out of the ashes, a carbon capture solution arises

Hosted by University College Dublin, iCRAG’s location on a small island may seem a disadvantage in becoming a major global contributor in research. Its size, however, has proven advantageous. ‘Small enough to test, big enough to prove,’ is the phrase repeated time and again.

The use of analogues means that areas of research in Ireland can be applied to Africa and North America. Why travel to inaccessible heights to measure the weathering of silicates when the Wicklow Mountains offer the opportunity – small enough to test, but big enough to prove.

This is what palaeobotanist Prof Jennifer McElwain, a principal investigator at iCRAG, hopes to do. Using fossilised plants, McElwain reconstructs the history of the gases in the atmosphere. By looking at the chemical composition of these plants, she tracks the course of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over millions of years. At iCRAG, she hopes to combine different fields in order to create geoengineering solutions for the climate crisis.

Enhanced chemical weathering involves utilising a process that naturally occurs over hundreds of thousands of years. When rainwater falls, the bare rock is chemically worn down. This leads to calcium and magnesium silicates going into streams, flowing down into rivers and, eventually, the ocean. When this water reaches the ocean, the silicates are replaced by carbon, resulting in a carbon trap and the reduction of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

McElwain and her team hope to replicate this process by adding volcanic ash to crops. As lime is often added to Irish soils, ash could be used to achieve similar results. These crops would break down the silicates, run off into the water and speed up the trapping of carbon. Crop health improves. The climate improves. No large expenses are needed. It is straightforward and effective – at least as a concept.

“We have the theory, but we need to do the experiments and to work out what plants and what level of ash is needed, and how deep to bury the ash,” said McElwain. “We need to work out what combination that will give the maximum amount of carbon taken out of the atmosphere.”

And so, a geochemist, a hydrologist, a plant physiologist and a social scientist walk into a lab. Based near the docks of Dublin, they have six climate control chambers towering three metres high. The chambers are filled with soil and ash. Instruments are fed through to monitor the chemical balance, and measure how different compositions interact with the plants on trial.

‘If we come up with a geoengineering solution, ethically, we may not want to go ahead with it’
– PROF JENNIFER MCELWAIN

Any climate in the world can be brought into the lab inside of these chambers. How plants fare in the American Badlands can be compared to the Irish grasslands. Even the conditions of Mars could be imitated. There is complete control of day-night cycles, heat and humidity. Researchers can investigate how to create the optimum carbon trap. They can observe what the silicates are doing and how ash is affecting the process.

Once these results are in, the team will move to experimental field plots, constantly checking in with both the science and the social side. What are the farming practices currently in place? How would this science impact these practices? Measuring the presence of magnesium in the run-off isn’t enough – the central question is what that magnesium run-off would mean for the land and its people.

Long before the construction of McElwain’s towering climate chambers, she travelled to Sicily in order to see the volcanic ash in its resting place – tales of 2,000-year-old lava versus its older 20,000-year-old sibling. Nestled into this volcanic rock are the plants and ash that could be key to the climate crisis.

“You can read things in a book, but I keep drawing on having been in Sicily with a volcanologist. I’ll read about a particular plant family and my mind will immediately think of seeing that plant on the most extreme slopes of [Mount] Etna, exposed to sulphur and bare ash, no soil. And I’m thinking, my goodness, that plant family – how does it do that? How does it concentrate different heavy metals? How does it survive?”

She added: “I should say first off, the most important step is we stop burning fossil fuels and move towards green energy technology. That is number one, and if we come up with a geoengineering solution, ethically we may not want to go ahead with it.” This may seem like a contradiction given the time, effort and resources put into the work, but it emphases how iCRAG refutes an ivory tower model of science and strives to know how their solutions will affect the real world and its inhabitants.

Marrying the social to the science

Difficult questions like these are the reason Prof Murray Hitzman leads iCRAG. While he would go on to demonstrate a worldwide array of both academic and industry experience in geology,. Hitzman’s initial qualification was a bachelor’s degree in geology and anthropology from Dartmouth College in 1976. His studies of minerals were secondary to his fascination with culture and its evolution. In an effort to go to Guatemala on an underfunded anthropology study, Hitzman agreed to a more readily resourced geology field trip in the same area. And so he studied both – finding more integration and relevance than he expected.

This social science origin is central to iCRAG’s now-core philosophy. The use of minerals and their extraction from the ground has a massive impact on a society and its development. Since its foundation, iCRAG has been reimagined as a group that could lead the way in decarbonisation – a “non-trivial exercise” said Hitzman.

“Most people just think about the energy side, and that’s really complicated. But of all the materials that are needed … we have to rebuild the buildings to make them energy efficient. We have to redo our fleets of transportation to make them run on new types of energy. All these things, the amount of materials we’ll need, is astounding. How do we do that without screwing up the planet? It’s difficult but it’s doable.”

Hitzman described the “perfect electrochemistry” of cobalt that can’t be matched by any of its peers. What was once thought of as an unwanted by-product can now be harnessed to pave the way for renewable energy. His descriptions of sulphur-eating bacteria and their behavioural habits are filled with a deep passion and resonance with his work. Conveying this to politicians and policy-makers is difficult, but he highlighted the importance of bringing this science to life.

Engaging with the Earth

One such example in Ireland is underwater acoustic research. While we may think of Ireland as a landmass, the national border stretches far into the ocean. To map this, a big gun is used to make an airblast (“a big ‘pop’ underwater”) that puts pressure on the bottom of the ocean. This goes into the earth and bounces around. These bounces are measured, and the seabed is mapped.

While these blasts cannot be heard on the surface, there was concern about what the process would do to marine life. The effect of loud acoustics on populations of porpoises, whales and fish was outside the remit of geologists, so iCRAG hired marine biologists to investigate, leading the research to be paused until more is known. Stratification caused by temperature and salinity meant that the sound moves at different velocities. Not only that, but just like on the Earth’s surface, the bottom of the ocean has canyons and mountains and topography. And just as they would above sea level, these valleys echo underwater.

New problems require novel solutions. Rather than disrupting wildlife using traditional methods in the field, iCRAG has instead used the natural sounds of the earth to create similar maps.

As seismic activities and ocean waves generate vibrations, the researchers hone into this ‘heartbeat of the planet’ using sensors in a titanium pressure tube. These sensors are designed to float to the water’s surface once their deployment is finished, allowing them to be collected without disturbing sea life. Named with the help of Irish schoolchildren as part of a public engagement programme, sensors such as Allód, Quakey and Wilson return to the researchers with minimal waste and zero wildlife interference – tapping into the natural world without disrupting it.

‘Science without buy-in from society is meaningless’
– PROF MURRAY HITZMAN

On referencing Annals of the Former World, the Pulitzer Prize-winning work of John McPhee on the geology of North America, Hitzman lights up. He says the author has done colossal amounts for bringing geology to life for the lay public. The idea of preservation versus conservation, and how to extract resources that are necessary for helping the global environment, is central to McPhee’s writings on environmentalist David Brower.

McPhee brought a spark to the topic and a human consideration that Hitzman has integrated into his own approach. Rocks move slowly and people move quickly, but the job of the iCRAG director is to anticipate both and adjust accordingly.

He said, “Science without buy-in from society is meaningless. You have to marry the social science, the psychology and how people behave with the scientific knowledge.” Sometimes, this entails naming titanium ocean sensors in the classroom to bring the research to life. Other times it involves merging ancient resources like volcanic ash with modern farming practice.

All of the work, however, involves recognising the Earth is far from inert and, using geological science, we can meet the needs of both the planet and all those who inhabit it.

By Sam Cox

Sam Cox was named the science and technology winner in the 2020 National Student Media Awards (Smedias). This award category is sponsored by Science Foundation Ireland and includes a €1,000 bursary to support and encourage up-and-coming science and technology journalism.

The 2021 Smedias are now open for entries. The deadline for applications is 15 April 2021.

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Amazon given contract to store data for MI5, MI6 and GCHQ | GCHQ

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The UK’s spy agencies have given a contract to Amazon Web Services (AWS) to host classified material in a deal aimed at boosting the use of data analytics and artificial intelligence for espionage.

GCHQ had supported the procurement of a high-security cloud system, which would be used by its sister services, MI5 and MI6. Other government departments, such as the Ministry of Defence, would also use the system during joint operations.

The agreement, estimated by industry experts to be worth £500m to £1bn over the next decade, was signed this year with Amazon.com’s cloud service unit AWS, the Financial Times first reported, citing people familiar with the discussions.

The contract with Amazon is likely to ignite concerns over sovereignty because the UK’s most secret data will be hosted by a single US tech company.

GCHQ told news agencies it would not comment on reports about its relationships with tech suppliers. AWS declined to comment on the report.

In February, British spies at GCHQ said they had fully embraced artificial intelligence (AI) to uncover patterns in global data to counter hostile disinformation and catch child abusers.

GCHQ has been using basic forms of AI, such as translation technology, for years but is stepping up its use, partly in response to the use of AI by hostile states and partly due to the data explosion that makes it effective.

Gus Hosein, the executive director of Privacy International, told the FT there were many things parliament, regulators and the public needed to know about the deal.

“This is yet another worrying public-private partnership, agreed in secret,” he said. “If this contract goes through, Amazon will be positioned as the go-to cloud provider for the world’s intelligence agencies. Amazon has to answer for itself which countries’ security services it would be prepared to work for.”

On Monday, the GCHQ director, Jeremy Fleming, told a conference the number of ransomware attacks had doubled across the UK in 2021, compared with last year.

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Google deliberately throttled ad load times to promote AMP, claims new court document • The Register

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More detail has emerged from a 173-page complaint filed last week in the lawsuit brought against Google by a number of US states, including allegations that Google deliberately throttled advertisements not served to its AMP (Accelerated Mobile) pages.

The lawsuit – as we explained at the end of last week – was originally filed in December 2020 and concerns alleged anti-competitive practice in digital advertising. The latest document, filed on Friday, makes fresh claims alleging ad-throttling around AMP.

Google introduced AMP in 2015, with the stated purpose of accelerating mobile web pages. An AMP page is a second version of a web page using AMP components and restricted JavaScript, and is usually served via Google’s content delivery network. Until 2018, the AMP project, although open source, had as part of its governance a BDFL (Benevolent Dictator for Life), this being Google’s Malte Ubl, the technical lead for AMP.

In 2018, Ubl posted that this changed “from a single Tech lead to a Technical Steering Committee”. The TSC sets its own membership and has a stated goal of “no more than 1/3 of the TSC from one employer”, though currently has nine members, of whom four are from Google, including operating director Joey Rozier.

According to the Friday court filing, representing the second amended complaint [PDF] from the plaintiffs, “Google ad server employees met with AMP employees to strategize about using AMP to impede header bidding.” Header bidding, as described in our earlier coverage, enabled publishers to offer ad space to multiple ad exchanges, rather than exclusively to Google’s ad exchange. The suit alleges that AMP limited the compatibility with header bidding to just “a few exchanges,” and “routed rival exchange bids through Google’s ad server so that Google could continue to peek at their bids and trade on inside information”.

The lawsuit also states that Google’s claims of faster performance for AMP pages “were not true for publishers that designed their web pages for speed”.

A more serious claim is that: “Google throttles the load time of non-AMP ads by giving them artificial one-second delays in order to give Google AMP a ‘nice comparative boost’. Throttling non-AMP ads slows down header bidding, which Google then uses to denigrate header bidding for being too slow.”

The document goes on to allege that: “Internally, Google employees grappled with ‘how to [publicly] justify [Google] making something slower’.”

Google promoted AMP in part by ranking non-AMP pages below AMP pages in search results, and featuring a “Search AMP Carousel” specifically for AMP content. This presented what the complaint claims was a “Faustian bargain,” where “(1) publishers who used header bidding would see the traffic to their site drop precipitously from Google suppressing their ranking in search and re-directing traffic to AMP-compatible publishers; or (2) publishers could adopt AMP pages to maintain traffic flow but forgo exchange competition in header bidding, which would make them more money on an impression-by-impression basis.”

The complaint further alleges that “According to Google’s internal documents, [publishers made] 40 per cent less revenue on AMP pages.”

A brief history of AMP

AMP was controversial from its first inception. In 2017 developer Jeremy Keith described AMP as deceptive, drawing defensive remarks from Ubl. Keith later joined the AMP advisory committee, but resigned in August saying that “I can’t in good faith continue to advise on the AMP project for the OpenJS Foundation when it has become clear to me that AMP remains a Google product, with only a subset of pieces that could even be considered open source.”

One complaint is that the AMP specification requires a link to Google-hosted JavaScript.

In May 2020 Google stated it would “remove the AMP requirement from Top Stories eligibility”.

This was confirmed in April 2021, when Google posted about an update to its “page experience” whereby “the Top Stories carousel feature on Google Search will be updated to include all news content, as long as it meets the Google News policies. This means that using the AMP format is no longer required.” In addition, “we will no longer show the AMP badge icon to indicate AMP content.” Finally, Google Search signed exchanges, which pre-fetches content to speed page rendering on sites which support the feature, was extended to all web pages where it was previously restricted to AMP pages.

This is evidence that Google is pulling back from its promotion of AMP, though it also said that “Google continues to support AMP”.

As for the complaint, it alleges that Google has an inherent conflict of interest. According to the filing: “Google was able to demand that it represent the buy-side (i.e., advertisers), where it extracted one fee, as well as the sell-side (i.e., publishers), where it extracted a second fee, and it was also able to force transactions to clear in its exchange, where it extracted a third, even larger, fee.”

The company also has more influence than any other on web standards, thanks to the dominant Chrome browser and Chromium browser engine, and on mobile technology, thanks to Android.

That Google would devise a standard from which it benefited is not surprising, but the allegation of deliberately delaying ads on other formats in order to promote it is disturbing and we have asked the company to comment. ®

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What is COP26 and what can we expect from climate talks?

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Shelley Inglis from the University of Dayton explains how global climate negotiations work and what’s expected from the upcoming Glasgow summit.

Click here to visit The Conversation.

A version of this article was originally published by The Conversation (CC BY-ND 4.0)

Over two weeks in November, world leaders and national negotiators will meet in Scotland to discuss what to do about the climate crisis. It’s a complex process that can be hard to make sense of from the outside, but it’s how international law and institutions help solve problems that no single country can fix on its own.

I worked for the United Nations for several years as a law and policy adviser and have been involved in international negotiations. Here’s what’s happening behind closed doors and why people are concerned that COP26 might not meet its goals.

What is COP26?

In 1992, countries agreed to an international treaty called the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which set ground rules and expectations for global cooperation on combating climate change. It was the first time the majority of nations formally recognised the need to control greenhouse gas emissions, which cause global warming that drives climate change.

That treaty has since been updated, including in 2015 when nations signed the Paris climate agreement. That agreement set the goal of limiting global warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, and preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, to avoid catastrophic climate change.

COP26 stands for the 26th Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC. The “parties” are the 196 countries that ratified the treaty, plus the European Union. The UK, partnering with Italy, is hosting COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, from 31 October to 12 November 2021, after a one-year postponement due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Why are world leaders so focused on the climate crisis?

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report, released in August 2021, warns in its strongest terms yet that human activities have unequivocally warmed the planet, and that climate change is now widespread, rapid and intensifying.

The IPCC’s scientists explain how climate change has been fuelling extreme weather events and flooding, severe heat waves and droughts, loss and extinction of species, and the melting of ice sheets and rising of sea levels. UN secretary-general António Guterres called the report a “code red for humanity.”

Enough greenhouse gas emissions are already in the atmosphere, and they stay there long enough, that even under the most ambitious scenario of countries quickly reducing their emissions, the world will experience rising temperatures through at least mid-century.

However, there remains a narrow window of opportunity. If countries can cut global emissions to “net zero” by 2050, that could bring warming back to under 1.5 degrees Celsius in the second half of the 21st century. How to get closer to that course is what leaders and negotiators are discussing.

What happens at COP26?

During the first days of the conference, around 120 heads of state, like US president Joe Biden, and their representatives will gather to demonstrate their political commitment to slowing climate change.

Once the heads of state depart, country delegations, often led by ministers of environment, engage in days of negotiations, events and exchanges to adopt their positions, make new pledges and join new initiatives. These interactions are based on months of prior discussions, policy papers and proposals prepared by groups of states, UN staff and other experts.

Non-governmental organisations and business leaders also attend the conference, and COP26 has a public side with sessions focused on topics such as the impact of climate change on small island states, forests or agriculture, as well as exhibitions and other events.

The meeting ends with an outcome text that all countries agree to. Guterres publicly expressed disappointment with the COP25 outcome, and there are signs of trouble heading into COP26.

What is COP26 expected to accomplish?

Countries are required under the Paris Agreement to update their national climate action plans every five years, including at COP26. This year, they’re expected to have ambitious targets through 2030. These are known as nationally determined contributions, or NDCs.

The Paris Agreement requires countries to report their NDCs, but it allows them leeway in determining how they reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The initial set of emission reduction targets in 2015 was far too weak to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

One key goal of COP26 is to ratchet up these targets to reach net-zero carbon emissions by the middle of the century.

Another aim of COP26 is to increase climate finance to help poorer countries transition to clean energy and adapt to climate change. This is an important issue of justice for many developing countries whose people bear the largest burden from climate change but have contributed least to it.

Wealthy countries promised in 2009 to contribute $100bn a year by 2020 to help developing nations, a goal that has not been reached. The US, UK and EU, among the largest historic greenhouse emitters, are increasing their financial commitments, and banks, businesses, insurers and private investors are being asked to do more.

Other objectives include phasing out coal use and generating solutions that preserve, restore or regenerate natural carbon sinks, such as forests.

Another challenge that has derailed past COPs is agreeing on implementing a carbon trading system outlined in the Paris Agreement.

Are countries on track to meet international climate goals?

The UN warned in September 2021 that countries’ revised targets were too weak and would leave the world on pace to warm 2.7 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. However, governments are also facing another challenge that could affect how they respond: energy supply shortages have left Europe and China with price spikes for natural gas, coal and oil.

China – the world’s largest emitter – has not yet submitted its NDC. Major fossil fuel producers such as Saudi Arabia, Russia and Australia seem unwilling to strengthen their commitments. India – a critical player as the second-largest consumer, producer and importer of coal globally – has also not yet committed.

Other developing nations such as Indonesia, Malaysia, South Africa and Mexico are important. So is Brazil, which, under Jair Bolsonaro’s watch, has increased deforestation of the Amazon – the world’s largest rainforest and crucial for biodiversity and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

What happens if COP26 doesn’t meet its goals?

Many insiders believe that COP26 won’t reach its goal of having strong enough commitments from countries to cut global greenhouse gas emissions 45pc by 2030. That means the world won’t be on a smooth course for reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 and the goal of keeping warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius.

But organisers maintain that keeping warming under 1.5 degrees is still possible. Former US secretary of state John Kerry, who has been leading the US negotiations, remains hopeful that enough countries will create momentum for others to strengthen their reduction targets by 2025.

The cost of failure is astronomical. Studies have shown that the difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius can mean the submersion of small island states, the death of coral reefs, extreme heat waves, flooding and wildfires, and pervasive crop failure.

That translates into many premature deaths, more mass migration, major economic losses, large swathes of unliveable land and violent conflict over resources and food – what the UN secretary-general has called “a hellish future.”

The Conversation

By Shelley Inglis

Shelley Inglis is executive director of the Human Rights Center at the University of Dayton in Ohio. She is a research professor of human rights and law, and previously held various management positions with the United Nations Development Programme.

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