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On this day in 1984: disaster at Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India



It is 29 years to the day since a gas leak at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, killed thousands and impacted countless others. It remains one of the worst industrial tragedies in history. Jamie Mitchell looks back.

On December 3 1984, people in the central Indian city of Bhopal woke to an incident that would go on to shape the region. Toxic gas had leaked from a ruptured underground storage unit at a nearby chemical factory, forming into a cloud that engulfed the surrounding city, home to over 900,000 people.

Those who were given sufficient warning escaped the worst of the poison gas cloud. However, many were the residents of the nearby slums, trapped in their homes with no means of escape. While the overall death toll is debatable, thousands lost their lives as a result of the poisonous methyl isocyanate gas (MIC) that spread throughout the city. Thousands more required urgent medical attention.

During the days that followed, reports said that the some 8,000 had died in the disaster, as mortuaries overflowed and corpses of people and animals littered the streets of Bhopal. Greenpeace revealed that a further 20,000 others have died from causes related to the gas leak, and for thousands more it has caused significant morbidity and premature death rates in a new generation, who suffer from a multitude of health issues, ranging cancers to birth defects.

The US-owned Union Carbide Pesticide Plant, situated only three miles from Bhopal, was closed immediately after the event and investigations were launched into the cause of the leak. The official statement from the firm concluded, “The gas leak could only have been caused by deliberate sabotage. Someone purposely put water in the gas storage tank, and this caused a massive chemical reaction. Process safety systems had been put in place that would have kept the water from entering into the tank by accident.”

This position has been the subject of multiple lawsuits, with Union Carbide accused of disabling or repurposing the safety to different areas of the plant to cut costs. This is on top of withholding information vital to the cause of the leak and to the chemical composition of the gas cloud. To this day, the chemical makeup of the gas cloud has not been confirmed – an omission that seriously hampered in the treatment of those affected.

Union Carbide, now a subsidiary of Dow Chemical, immediately attempted to disassociate itself from the legal responsibility, the principal tactic being the shift in culpability to Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL). Thus began years of legal battles that largely ignored the ethical implications of the suffering inflicted on the people of Bhopal.

In 1985, the Indian government enacted the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster Act to make them the sole representative of the victims in all legal proceedings. And in 1987, Union Carbide officials, including former chairman Warren Anderson, were charged with multiple offences, such as culpable homicide, causing grievous hurt and causing death and poisoning of animals, by a Bhopal district court.

The request for Anderson’s extradition by the Indian government is still pending. Keshub Mahindra, however, then-chairman of UCIL, was convicted along with seven others.

Finally in 1989, a settlement mediated by the Indian supreme court. Union Carbide accepted responsibility for the disaster and paid a minimal $470m to the Indian government to be distributed to the families of the 3,000 accepted fatalities and the 102,000 people with permanent disabilities.

Fifteen years after reaching settlement, the supreme court of India finally ordered the government to release all additional settlement funds to the victims. Government records reveal that a total of around 578,000 people were affected. The settlement Union Carbide compensated each victim or the victim’s families an average of $550.

Dow Chemical Company merged with Union Carbide in 2001 and did not accept liability for the catastrophe in India. Its discontinued operation of the Bhopal plant reflected this lack of moral responsibility.

In a failure to clean up the industrial site, the plant continues to disperse toxic chemicals and heavy metals into the local aquifers that people, already with insufficient healthcare, depend on. Activists still seek to convince Dow to clean up the hazardous waste that still remains.

The legacy that Union Carbide and the Bhopal tragedy left behind is both a lesson and a warning. To developing countries like India, the disaster revealed the dangers of rapid industrialisation. The formation of the Ministry of Environment and Forests after the Environment Protection Act was passed in 1986 suggests that despite India’s rapid economic growth, environmental awareness and activism had increased significantly.

It is clear, however, that far more needs to be accomplished by national governments and international agencies, focusing on the corporate responsibility of accident prevention and response, in order to prevent similar catastrophes that, as the Bhopal disaster showed, can radically endanger public health.

Jamie Mitchell is originally from Cambridge and studied English at the University of Lincoln. He graduated with a upper second class honours degree in 2013. His interests include renewable energy, climate change and sustainable living.

Further reading:

Dow Olympic sponsorship faces scrutiny

Papua New Guinea is the latest in a long line of fossil fuel disasters

Toxic waste a health threat to 200m people, says report

On this day in 2010: BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill

Fukushima boss: 2011 disaster a ‘warning to the world’


Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?



self-driving cars for green environment
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Zapp2Photo |

Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?

But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?

The Big Picture

The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.

That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.

Driver Reduction?

One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.

There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.

As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.


Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.

Make and Model of Car

Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.

On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.

The Bottom Line

Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?

Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.

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New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035



renewable energy policy
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Eviart /

New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.

New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.

Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.

Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”

The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.

Zero net emissions by 2050

Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.

Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.

She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.

Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”

A worldwide shift to renewable energy

Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.

Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.

Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.

Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.


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