Total Recall

June 29, 2009

Ever wondered why we take so bloody long to admit that we have degraded our environment and even longer to actually do something about it. Denial, procrastination and self-delusion are obvious culprits. And now scientists have managed to prove that another reason for our environment apathy could be AMNESIA (Nothing to do with the effects of head injury beloved by scriptwriters from L.A to Bombay) A theory caled ‘shifting baselines’ proposed in 1995 by marine biologist Daniel Pauly, tried to pin down inaccurate perceptions about nature as the reason for our indifference to it. The theory say that due to short lifespans and poor memories, we have a poor perception of the extent to which we have degraded the natural world. Thus, the baseline for what constitutes a pristine forest will be different for Generation X and Gen Y. Yup, what we percieve as ‘natural beauty’ could well be ‘degraded eyesores’ to our grandparents.

This shifting baseline theory has now been validated by scientists who interviewed 50 villagers in Yorkshire, England, about local bird life. They then compared it with actual data on bird populations. The scientists found that older people were more accurate at naming the common bird species 20 years ago. They called this ‘generational amnesia’ as a chunk of information had been lost between two generations. The study also pointed to the existence of ‘personal amnesia’  where information was lost by an individual over their own lifetime. For example, in the interviews, one-third of the participants  believed that there was no change in local bird life over the past 20 years (while the actual data did show changes). This suggests that people update their perceptions without realising it.

This theory has significant implications for nature conservation. For example, the scientists point out that it could explain American and European hostility to wolf reintroduction programmes. They say that because wolves were killed out so long ago they are no longer considered a part of the natural environment and hence provoke hostility. A case of generational amnesia that could also affect our perception of other big ticket issues like pollution, climate change and biodiversity loss. It also highlights the importance of transfer of knowledge from one generation to the other. Today so few of us live in the same area we were born. The information we transfer to subsequent generations is thus only a small snapshot in time of the local environment. This is shifting our baselines much further. Luckily, we do have museum records and scientific forensic tools to remind us of our snapshot perception of reality. However, despite availability of scientific data, nothing provokes environment activism like a personal understanding of our own environment history.


Agriculture (including animal husbandry) contributes 54% of methane, 80% nitrous oxide and almost 100% of the CO2 emissions attributed to land use change. The livestock industry alone has been blamed for 18% of all human green house gas emissions. And now it is payback time. Climate change is going to affect (if not already doing so ) global agricultural productivity and our ability to feed ourselves. Mealtimes are never going to be the same again (cue: evil, villanous laughter). Our family sit-down meals, T.V dinners, lavish feasts, cafeteria mush and desktop lunches that we take for granted are only going to become more dear. Droughts, floods, salinity, heat damage, new/proliferating pests, weeds & disease and  decreased crop growth cycles are going to make life difficult for primary producers and hungry consumers.

As if life wasn’t tough already. The U.N Food and Agriculture Organisation announced that for the first time ever, the world total of hungry people (those getting less than 1800 calories/day) reached the 1 billion mark this year. High food prices (caused by high fuel prices and competition from biofuels and cattle feed) combined with the global recession, created a new hungry class of people who are not the poorest of the poor but who have been pushed into a downward economic spiral. They cope by missing meals, foregoing health care and taking their children out of school. Climate change is only going to make this a triple whammy. Some possibilities over the next 50 years;

1. Vegans rejoice: Meat and dairy will become prohibitively expensive. Rising incomes and intensive production have allowed us to eat more meat, more often. Now this resource hungry and high carbon emitting food source will be highly taxed and reserved for special occasions for those who can still afford it.

2. Clever crop breeding: Domesticated rice cannot produce seeds if the temperature goes over 32 degrees celsius. But some weeds related to rice overcome this problem by fertilizing during night or early morning, when it is much cooler. Crop breeding (including GM) will focus more on creating adaptable food crops instead of herbicide/pest resistant cash/cattle feed crop (like cotton, maize & soya)

3. New World Order: The recent food crisis saw countries like India, Pakistan, Vietnam and Cambodia restricting their rice exports. Island countries and those dependent on food imports will try to strike a more equitable world order in favour of food surplus countries. Developed and developing will give way to ecological debtors and ecological creditor countries.

4. Food Security Real Estate: What do you do if most of your country is desert or if you need to feed more than a billion people? Ecological debtor countries like Saudi Arabia and China are already leasing/buying thousands of acres of land in poorer countries like Sudan, Ukraine and Pakistan. Until the poor countries wise up at least.

5. Private Samaritans : The private sector is waking up to the fact that food & water security can affect their competitiveness and also place them in competition with local people for limited resources. Forget the U.N and USAID, private sector initiatives like building canals and water harvesting will become a more common and accepted option, supplementing scarce government resources.

Power to the people

June 23, 2009

Renewable energy has seen a big buy-in over the last decade. Factors like high oil prices and carbon emissions commitments have had a major role to play in the mainstreaming of what were once seen as ‘new toys on the energy block’. They finally arrived as Cinderellas of the ball this year when the U.N announced that for the first time ever, green energy overtook their ugly fossil fuel sisters in attracting investment. Wind, solar and other green tech collectively garnered $ 140 billion while coal & gas could only manage $110 billion.

Wind energy comprises a big chunk of the pie with $51.8 billion of investment. A new study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (yes, stuffy name = more academic cred.) say that theoretically wind energy could provide 40 times the electricity and 5 times the total energy the world is currently consuming. That is if all the windy areas on the planet (mean annual wind speed ≥ 25 Km/h) were covered with wind turbines. Excluding forests, permanent snow/ice, wetlands and urban areas, this would amount to roughly 13% of the global land area. Now if only planting wind turbines were as easy as planting saplings.

Solar energy is not far behind with $33.5 billion. If you want to get theoretical about solar, try this for size; the total solar energy absorbed by the earth in 2002 in one hour was sufficient to power the world for one full year. On a more practical level, the world’s largest solar power plant PS20 in Spain, has a capacity of 20 megawatts. Compared to the world’s biggest coal fired Kendal power plant in South Africa with a monster capacity of 4116 megawatts, this may seem insignificant. But the best bit about solar is that it is growing at 50% every year (the PS20 solar plant has double the capacity of its predecessor, the PS10)

But the biggest paradigm shift is not just about the use of renewable energy itself but also more about the way we use it. The future of renewable energy possibly lies not in scaling them up into mega power plants but in scaling them down to individual households. Each household would eventually have its own renewable energy production unit that will feed into intelligent grids. Consumers will adapt their lifestyles based on the capacity of their renewable energy units to avoid burdening them with demand peaks. As of now (discounting their obvious lower carbon emissions benefits) scaled-down renewable energy options are more expensive over a 20 year period than connecting to the main grid. However, with advances in technology and lowering of infrastructure costs, it might soon be a realistic option. Around 1.7 billion people are currently living off-grid as they have no access to it in the first place. Imagine the environment benefits of keeping them off-grid without condemming them to darkness and poverty.

Show me the money

June 22, 2009

Everything on earth costs money or can only be obtained at the cost of someone/something else. The conservation sector woke up to this reality and started calculating the cost of ecosystem services and livelihood opportunities  from forests. This, they believed would serve as a valid argument for protecting forests from destructive alternate land use. All very fine and noble. But they went a bit too far and started placing a price on forests as well. In boom time, conservation organisations vied with each other to buy leases to a gazillion acres of forest concessions as an alternative to logging. These leases were by no means cheap. Millions of dollars were raised in record time to secure them, as they were guaranteed to generate publicity and in turn more funding.

The flip side of this forest real-estate boom was that cash-strapped governments were let off the hook and absolved of all their responsibilities to safeguard their own natural heritage.  All that they had to do was give the developed world an ultimatum to pay up or face the chainsaw. In their view, the only other option to logging their forests is to sell them to eco-bidders. This sudden influx of ‘green money’ resulted in years of conservation education programmes being flushed down the john. These education campaigns worked on the ‘slow but sure’ model of helping communities restablish the link between forests and people. In one clean sweep, the conservation and forest carbon market has nullified the hard-won gains with a short-term cash influx. Now with the recession, conservation groups and carbon financiers are finding it increasingly difficult to pay governments the asking price for their forests. For example, Cameroon has given Wildlife Works, 30 days to cough up $ 10 million for almost 2 million acres of forests or see it opened to logging and mining leases who are willing to pay to plunder.

In a world experiencing climate change, it is only too easy to assume a global stewardship of the world’s forests as our shared, common life-raft resource. In reality it is far from the truth. The first right to any forest can only be claimed by the local indigenous people and communities living beside/in them, followed by citizens of the State and countries that have a legal jurisdiction over them. Equally, the responsibility for protecting those forests also follows the same chain of claims. A Brussels banker has as much claim on a rainforest patch in Borneo as an Irula adivasi elder has on a Citibank branch in Tokyo. Global solutions to local problems is akin to selling hybrid Hummer trucks to combat climate change.

It is here. The most eagerly awaited climate change draft has been revealed at last. The Draft Negotiation Text of the UNFCCC which will form the basis of the post 2012 climate negotiations was unveiled in Bonn this month and it does look promising. With a draft in hand, the UNFCCC will be hoping that the negotiations in Copenhagen will be less like  assembling a mangled Frankenstein and more like choosing the interiors of your new Prius Hybird car. The fate of final document rests on two words; Curly brackets a.k.a { } , the bread and butter of all negotiators. With {Shall} or {Should} in almost every other sentence of the draft, there is a lot to be won or lost. And the stakes are high. Some interesting developments (all in ye good olde {} of course) in the Draft are;


1. Developed countries to reduce emissions by 25-40% by 2020 and 75-95% by 2050

2. Of this 90% has to be from domestic action and only 10% from offsets.

3. Developing countries to reduce by 25% of 2000 levels by 2050.

4. Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Action (NAMA) for developing countries on a voluntary basis but this mitigation cannot be used to generate offsets for developed countries.

5. More prosperous developing countries have to have a NAMA by 2020 and be prepared to undertake actions similar to developed countries after a fixed date.

6. Sectoral commitments for developing countries (steel, power, cement industry, etc.)

REDD/Avoided deforestation

7. REDD (avoided deforestation) to be incorporated as a legitimate part of NAMA

8. Interested developing countries must draft a National REDD strategy covering readiness, demonstrative and full implementation phases along with national reference levels.

9. Separate fund for REDD activities to complement the World Forest Carbon Partnership.


10. Developed countries must fork out 0.5 to 2% of their GDP

11. Price on carbon through auction of emissions

12. Levy on air passengers

13. Levy of 2-5% from CDM projects and 2-12% from emissions trading.

14. Global levy on internation monetary transactions.

15. Monetary penalties for non-compliance to be paid into the Adaptation Fund.

I See Fat People

June 18, 2009

Fat people have never had it so tough. In a world which worships the toned body, their thunder thighs, barrel bellies, man boobs, spare tyres and double chins are badges of dishonour. Greed, sloth, denial, weak, unmotivated are some of the tags that come with being an obese person. It is bad enough living with the guilt and shame of being relegated to an eyesore in the humanscape, but they are increasingly being blamed for more than just abusing their own bodies. Obesity is seen as a great burden on health expenditure, as it is associated with 45 morbidities including the 2 biggies; cardiovascular diseases and type II diabetes. £7.7 billion is the cost of obesity to the National Health Service in the U.K every year with 1 in 4 of its citizens obese. It is now more acceptable to criticise fat people as they are increasingly being seen as a drain on national resources. Studies show that they are not only endangering their own lives (they live a decade less than if they were healthy) but they could also be threatening the survival of the entire human race. Reason; fat people contribute more to climate change.

A World Health Organisation report states that each overweight (let alone obese) person causes an additional tonne of CO2 to be emitted into the atmosphere every year as a result of their lifestyle choices. With 1 billion people in the world thought to be overweight (with 300 million of them obese) that results in 1 billion extra tonnes of CO2 a year that we could certainly do without. How do they do it? Fat cats are believed to eat more meat which comes from the meat industry that has high CO2 emissions. 1kg of beef produces 22kg of CO2 equivalent emissions (same as that to produce one iPod). In addition, pastureland and cattle feed (like corn and soya) are often obtained by clearing forests, which are natural carbon sinks. Obese people are more likely to use cars than walk, cycle or use public transport. They are also heavier to transport and consume more fuel on account of their extra pounds. For example, the average American weighs 24 pounds more than in the 1960s and thus transporting 736 million passengers (air traffic for 2007) a year would use 176.4 million gallons more of jet fuel than in the 1960s.

While it is tempting and convenient to place the blame on fat people, there is more to it than meets the eye (pun unintended). The recent surge in obesity levels can be attributed to poor policies that serve vested interests at the cost of overall health. Trends such as highly subsidised production of fats, oils and sugar and the promotion of HFSS (high fat, sugar & salt) food products especially among children are largely to blame. Car-centric urban planning is also responsible for reducing commute-exercise options such as walking or biking. A genetic make up for times of scarce food and high physical demands for survival is proving to be a liability with easy availability of energy-rich foods and labour-saving devices. We are ALL using more energy and emitting more CO2 than we really need and it is unfair to victimise the obese only because they physically manifest the symptoms of a high carbon lifestyle. After all, the superfit emit a lot of extra carbon too with all those power-hungry treadmills, not to mention driving to the gym.

All Overboard

June 16, 2009

We know there are climate change skeptics out there. I don’t mean the ones paid by Big Oil or lobby groups trying to help their governments squeeze out of emission commitments. Just average Joes and Janes who just are not convinced about human-induced climate change. Maybe they don’t see it as their problem or just hate their holier-than thou energy saving/Prius driving neighbours. Who knows? But something that sure is not helping in winning them over are over-the -top statements that predict armageddon or promote the annhilation of the humans as the only solution. These heated comments give the environment movement and environmentalists a bad name and provide ammo for climate skeptics. A few prize winners extracted from a climate skeptic website;

1. “I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.” Paul Elhrich, Author of The Population Bomb (1968).

2. “I suspect that eradicating small pox was wrong. It played an important part in balancing ecosystems.” John Davis, former editor of the Earth First! Journal.

3. “If I were reincarnated, I would wish to be returned to Earth as a killer virus to lower human population levels.”, Prince Philip.

4. “Cannibalism is a radical but realistic solution to the problem of overpopulation.” Lyall Watson, South African zoologist and anthropologist.

5. “To feed a starving child is to exacerbate the world population problem.” Dr.LaMont Cole, Yale University.

6. “We, in the green movement, aspire to a cultural model in which killing a forest will be considered more contemptible and more criminal than the sale of 6-year-old children to Asian brothels.” Carl Amery (aka Christian Anton Mayer), German writer and environment advocate.

7. “Childbearing [should be] a punishable crime against society, unless the parents hold a government license…. All potential parents [should be] required to use contraceptive chemicals, the government issuing antidotes to citizens chosen for childbearing.”David Bower, founder, Friends of the Earth

8. “The right to have children should be a marketable commodity, bought and traded by individuals but absolutely limited by the state.”Keith Boulding, Founder of Spaceship Earth concept

9.“This cooling has already killed hundreds of thousands of people. If it continues and no strong action is taken, it will cause world famine, world chaos and world war, and this could all come about before the year 2000.” Lowell Ponte, author of The Cooling (1976)

10. “A global climate treaty must be implemented even if there is no scientific evidence to back the greenhouse effect.” Richard Benedict, U.S Conservation Foundation.

We have heard of some truly ‘out there’ ideas on mitigating climate change. From feeding carbon-capturing algal blooms in oceans to capturing CO2 from power plants and storing it underground. Yet everyone is quietly skirting around one solution that has become the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’; FAMILY PLANNING. While one can tell the neighbour off for leaving the porch lights on (and reap moral superiority points in the process) it still isn’t acceptable to tell them to get a vasectomy. Taking the world average into account, every new person on earth is going to emit approximately 4.0 tonnes of CO2 per year (all figures in this post from 2004 data). With a world average life expectance of 67.2 years, that amounts to 268.8 tonnes of CO2 in a lifetime. This figure does not even take into  account the inevitable per capita increase in emissions in developing countries associated with lifestyle changes and higher life expectancies.It is not for nothing that China brags that its one-child policy spared the world 300 million potential green house gas emitters (though bringing women into industry and farming collectives rather than government policy should get the credit)

Figures aside, the issue of birth control is a controversial issue and is seen as an infringement on the rights of an individual. When India’s  former Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi tried to implement a coercive sterlization programme, there was a strong backlash. It is believed that this is responsible for public aversion to family planning even today in the country. The Indian Government has abandoned the stick for the carrot and now encourages Indian men to get vasectomies in return for free gun licenses. However, reducing population growth need not be about CONTROL of population growth. There are around 200 million women out there without access to contraceptives and who have no intention of getting pregnant. Around 80 million pregnancies around the world are unintended, which exceeds the 78 million by which the world population grows each year. Thus, there is potential to reduce our impact on the planet by empowering women to make decisions about when and how many children they want. Interestingly, there is greater potential for family planning in developed countries than in developing ones in terms of CO2 emissions. For example, in the U.S where 15.2% of GDP is spent on health care (second highest in the world), 1 in 2 pregnancies is unintended. The per capita CO2 emissions of a U.S citizen is 20.6 tonnes (world average, 4.0) and life expectancy is 78.06 years (world average, 67.2). After the sums, preventing an unwanted pregnancy in the U.S would save 1608.03 tonnes of CO2 as opposed to even the world average of 268.8 tonnes (leave alone low carbon emitting countries)

With carbon credits being milked from a diverse range of sources, family planning (as opposed to control) could be the offset delivering the most value for money.

Many developing countries with significant forest cover are waiting with bated breath for the climate change meeting in Copenhagen in December. They will be trying to push for the inclusion of the REDD (Reduction of Emissions of Deforestation and Degradation) scheme into the new climate framework. This would mean that developed countries will pay them for ‘avoided deforesation’ and in exchange will be entitled to forest carbon credits to offset their emissions at home. Tropical forests are saved, global emissions fall, emission targets are met and guilt consciences assuaged. Everyone is a winner. Or so it seems…

A major spanner is this dream sequence is Brazil, the ‘Saudi Arabia of green assets’. Its President Lula, has announced an ambitious commitment to reduce deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon by 70% over a 10 year period (2006-2017). To pay for this, Brazil has set up the Amazon Fund, which seeks funding to the tune of $ 21 billion from developed countries. So what’s new, you ask? Well the big difference is that unlike REDD schemes, donors to the Amazon Fund WILL NOT BE ELIGIBLE for carbon credits from ‘avoided deforestation’. The message is clear; “If you are so concerned about deforestation in the Amazon, be prepared to pay for its role as  global carbon lifeline instead of a cheap source of carbon credits. An expert summed it up nicely, “Brazil is not interested in giving industrialized countries cheap carbon credits from protecting the Amazon if they are not going to stop building coal-fired power plants”. In short, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

Brazil’s offer is not to be taken lightly. If it does manage to meet its 10 year commitment, it would reduce emissions equivalent to that of Canada and E.U (annual emissions) combined. The Amazon Fund also takes us back to pre-climate change enlightened times, when people were prepared to pay to protect forests without any payback in the form of emissions reductions. Must forests only be viewed through the narrow lens of carbon capture/finance providers?

The Great Apes Project is an association of primatologists, ethicists, psychologists and other experts who are campaigning for a ‘United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Great Apes’. The three main rights to be conferred on gorillas, chimpanzees, bobnobos and organutans would be the right to life, individual liberty and prohibition of torture. Basically, they cannot be killed (except in self-defense), cannot be detained if no crime has been commited by them (they will have the right to appeal through an advocate) and cannot be subjected to pain (irrespective of percieved benefit to others). There is also a movement to confer ‘personhood’ on them as they share many similarities with us. Governments are catching on as well. Spain has given the Great Apes these three rights, the U.K & New Zealand have banned experiments on Great Apes while Switzerland prohibits violation of their ‘dignity’.

However, the practise of conferring legal rights to animals is not a recent trend but dates back to medieval times. Some interesting cases;

1. Troublesome termites: In 1713, a group of Franciscan monks in Brazil requested their bishop to excommunicate the termites who destroyed their furniture and foundations of their monastery. The verdict; the monks were instructed to provide alternate habitat for the termites who were in turn instructed to leave the monastery and relocate to the new site.

2. Recalcitrant rats: In 1522, the rats of Autun in France, were accused of destroying the barley crop of the province. When the defendants failed to appear in court, their appointed lawyer argued that his clients lived in different villages and that a single summons would fail to notify them of the complaint. Despite the court order for the citation to  be read out in all parishes of the province,  the rats failed to turn up and thus lost the case by default.

3. Favoured moles: In 1519, the commune of Stelvio, Italy, prosecuted a group of moles whose burrowing damaged crops. Anticipating their forced evacuation, their counsel requested that the moles be granted safe passage from the fields and harm from dogs, cats and other enemies. The judge not only granted this request but also granted 14 extra days to moles with young to vacate the premises.

4. Privileged weevils: The weevils of St. Julien in France were prosecuted for destroying local vineyards. Their lawyer argued that according to the Book of Genesis, God had created animals before human beings and thus the weevils had a prior right to the vineyards. When offered an alternate patch of land for the weevils, the lawyer was not satisfied and claimed that the plot was sterile and could not sustain the needs of his defendants.

5. Innocent piglets: In 1457 in Savigny-sur-Etang, France, a sow and her 6 piglets were imprisoned for killing a 5 year old child. The sow was executed but the piglets were pardoned in view of their extreme youth and the bad example set by their mother.