A Whole Load of Bull

June 5, 2009

Fossil fuel lobbyists and countries guilty of highest green house gas emissions (mostly developed countries) have a new target in their sights. She has four legs, loves a good scratch and usually goes by the name of Daisy or Buttercup. Yup, she is our good old cow or Bos taurus. Nourisher of billions and worshipped by millions she is probably the animal we have most benefitted from since animals were domesticated. But there are people pointing fingers at her while simultaneously sipping double lattés sourced from her udders. Her crime; belching. Her critics cite a U.N endorsed report that attributes our bovines with contributing to 18% CO2 equivalent green house emissions, which is more than the transport sector. This fact has been lapped up by media looking for a change from fossil fuel bashing and a ‘balance’ in reporting news. Is bovine belching really that catastrophic?

If we dissect the U.N report the 18% figure is the total contribution of the cattle farming sector not just methane belching cows. Methane accounts for 24% of global warming and belching by ruminants (including sheep) accounts for 26.4% of methane production. Thus gassy livestock are responsible for 6.3% of global warming, which is only 1/3rd of the U.N figure. The remaining 2/3rds are a result of resource-intensive cattle farming industry with dependence on fertilizers, land conversion for pastures and processing. A significant portion of bovine emissions comes from nitrous oxide produced when manure decomposes naturally.

What can be done to reduce this bovine guilt trip? A less intensive cattle industry holds the key. One kilo of beef releases 22kg of CO2 equivalent emissions (the same as producing one iPod) while 1kg of wheat flour releases only 1/2 kg of CO2 equivalent emissions. In many countries like India, cow manure has great value to rural communities as dung cakes for fuel. Biogas plants where cow dung is anaerobically digested to produce methane gas used for electricity and as a cooking gas. Cattle feed with flaxseeds and summer grass can reduce methane emissions by 18% as well as the sector’s dependence on corn and soya feed, which are produced at the expense of forests and food crops. Companies are also looking at producing ‘cow methane’ to power vehicles. Each cow contains 80-100 kilos of residual methane which is extracted as a byproduct of the meat industry. This is heated, put in digesters and purified to produce vehicle-ready methane gas. A veggie diet is an easy way for individual bovine fans to do their bit. Just don’t put a gift cow in the mouth.

Humans share the world with animals. We eat them, exterminate them as pests, subject them to experiments and use them as companion/work/therapy/prestige/entertainment providers. As a result of these interactions, scientists and sociologists are increasingly focussing on the quality of human-animal relationships. Eliminating the language barrier has been a major hurdle in improving the quality of human-animal interactions. Sure, study of animal behaviour or ethology gives us a glimpse into animal communication, but I still don’t see us barking in the exact right tone to Bruno to make him stop chewing the slippers. Similarly, animals (despite lacking the ability to be embarassed) are handicapped by their inability to speak human.

The closest we have ever come to having something resembling a conversation is when Koko, a gorilla, was taught to communicate in sign language. An interface is thus essential for better human-animal communication. Some attempts were made in this direction with ‘Bowlingual’ a Japanese device that claimed to translate dog barks into 200 human phrases grouped into 6 moods. It was based largely on Dr. Matsumi Suzuki’s Animal Emotion Analysis System developed at Japan Acoustic Laboratory. Even if this interface were accurate (it has mixed reviews at best), we still cannot talk dog.

A major problem is that most physical interfaces have been designed with humans in mind. To enable animals to participate, the interface must make sense of their world. For example, we cannot expect a cow to type an email in the same way we cannot imagine us butting a bovine with our skulls. However, with increasing transformation of the chunky computer with keyboard and mouse into touch sensitive, bendy, texture simulating, interfacing devices, the possibilities for inter-species communication is widening. For example, a computer game called ‘Metazoa Ludens’ enables humans and hamsters to interact with each other in a virtual environment. The hamster is given a robot that it must chase on a 3D terrain and the human is given a visual rendition of the same terrain and an avtar linked to the same robot. Actions of the hamster are transformed into meaningful signals to humans and vice versa. Through this, human and hamster can chase each other in a virtual world and interact as equals. Now if only I could find some cheat codes…

Prepare or perish

June 3, 2009

Climate change is inevitable and so is our need to adapt to it. Adaptation would involve fortifying ourselves against the impacts of inundation, drought, biodiversity loss, decreased agricultural productivity, invasive species and spread of diseases and their vectors. Those doomsday movies sure come handy in preparing us for this psychologically, but who is going to don the superhero mantle and save us from climate disaster? Our climate superheroes are more likely to be donning labcoats or sarongs than body-hugging spandex suits. The collective knowledge of humanity in the form of its best scientists, competitive companies, biomimicry enthusiasts, innovative farmers, guardians of traditional knowledge, thrifty housewives and kids working on science projects will help us adapt to a rapidly changing climate. Some neat ideas churned out so far;

1. Green Roofs: Not to be confused with ‘roof gardens’ beloved by urban gardeners on the waiting list for an allotment. Green roofs are established on a very thin layer of soil and comprise of Sedum and moss plants. Individually, they reduce energy required for heating and cooling buildings and collectively they combat the ‘urban heat island effect.’ The city of Tokyo offers tax cuts and loans for buildings with green roofs.

2. Bioclimatic Walls: These weather walls are external to the actual walls of a building and contain light sensitive, perforated louvres to reduce glare and heat. Many exisisting buildings which are nothing but giant  ‘solar traps’ can be retrofitted with bioclimatic walls.

3. Xeriscaping: For gardeners who hate hose-pipe bans that are only going to get longer in a changing climate. Xeriscaping involves designing your garden to utilise the least amount of water possible by planting only drought-resistant, water-thrifty plant species. Some cities are already offering a rebate on water charges to xeriscapers.

4. Biorock Reefs: Rise in sea temperature is already causing bleaching of corals followed by decline in the marine life dependent on the reefs. Biorocks are created by passing a low voltage electrical current through seawater, causing dissolved minerals to precipitate on to surfaces. They eventually grow into white limestone structures similar to the materials that make up coral reefs and nourish tropical white sand beaches. Biorock can be used to rehabilitate degraded coral reefs which also incidentally serve as a natural buffer against encroaching seas.

5. Floating Farms: Farmers in Bangaladesh have traditionally used floating agriculture as a means of feeding themselves in an often inundated ecosystem. They use a system akin to ‘hydroponics’ where the crops derive their nutrients from water instead of soil.  The farmers prepare their floating farms by creating a bed of water hyacinth, aquatic algae and water creeprs along with straws and herbs or plant residues. A typical bed might be 50m long, 15 m wide and 3/4th of a metre high. These floating farms could help us cope with monsoon and tidal floods.

Small is underwater

June 2, 2009

One motely group of tiny countries have a lot to lose if the climate talks in Copenhagen this December fail. The Association of Small Island States (AOSIS) is a grouping of 43 small island countries like Vanuatu, Maldives, Cyprus, Cuba… who are already experiencing the impacts of human-accelerated climate change while the rest of us are twiddling our thumbs about what to do about it. These islands are bound to be the first casualities of global sea level rise and for most the only adaptation choice is evacuation. Some like Tuvalu are already preparing for a full-scale evacuation to Australia or New Zealand (if they will have them that is). With the clock ticking, they watch with exasperation as the big emitters shuffle their feet over climate commitments and funding. With a mere 5% of the world’s population, these isles realised that together they would form a more effective lobby group with 20% of the U.N membership.

Indeed, they were quite effective in the early days of the climate talks despite the limited economic and political clout of its individual members. Their plight gave them the status of the ‘conscience’ of the climate negotations, a glimpse of the worst case scenario if we didn’t get our act together on time. However, the immediate need for ‘ecological effectiveness’ in climate talks that AOSIS championed was soon overshadowed by other interests affecting the big players. The developed countries and OPEC began to  lobby for ‘economic effectiveness’ as the key basis for any climate deal, where minimum damage to the economy had precedence over what was best for the environment. Climate commitments became economic commitments and countries vied with each over to jump the climate fence with the lightest commitment load, applauded by their relieved industries and consumers. Simultaneously, developing countries began lobbying for ‘social and equity effectiveness’ which translated into the oft repeated ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ slogan.

Interestingly, this trend is not new. The wildlife conservation sector faced a very similar set of divergent priorities. The initial need for ‘ecological effectiveness’ led to the creation of Protected Area Networks for in situ conservation. Within these safe havens, wildlife had priority over all else. However, poaching as a result of alienation of local people forced the conservation movement to embrace the ‘social and equitable’ model of community based conservation. Another group demanded that wildlife must ‘pay its way’ and introduced ‘sustainable’ hunting and ‘ecotourism’ for ‘economically effective’ conservation. Ultimately, what we are left with are wildlife refuges that adopt one, two or all three of these approaches in varying degrees depending on the local situation. This amalgamation of priorities took the better part of a 100 years to achieve and conservationists still argue endlessly about the relative merits of these approaches. We do not have a 100 years to create a climate deal, only a few months. For our small island friends it may already be too late.