Animals use tools. We know that now. Chimps make special sticks to gather termites, Caledonian Crows use leaf strips to catch insects and most recently Spider Monkeys have been known to improvise medicinal back scratchers for those ‘oh-so-hard-to-reach’ spots. Aaah…But what would they do if they could aspire to ‘higher’ things? (No offence to back scratching monkeys)

1. A Swiss Army Knife to get rid of those annoying radio-tags that pesky researchers keep thrusting on them.

2. A tranquiliser dart gun to outshoot the above mentioned pesky researchers and stop them from taking vials of blood and feeling them up under anesthesia.

3. A bank account to collect the payment for ecosystem services and bio-prospecting.

4. A seat on the climate change meeting in Copenhagen in December to talk about ecosystem based adaptation and forest carbon credits.

5. A possible ban on illegal detainment without charge in zoos, circuses and labs.

6. A Wildlife Trade Organisation (WTO) that will regulate the trade in humans and their parts.

7. A Coal Plant/Mine/Big Dam Non Proliferation Treaty.

8. Hybrid cars powered by humans pedalling furiously.

9. Human lard fat as a replacement for Palm oil.

10. An International Animal Court  to prosecute perpetrators of species’cide’ and biodiversity cleansing.

The environment movement has largely been based around the idea that non-violent demonstration can halt environment destruction. It reaped great results in the beginning as perpetrators of environment crimes, including governments, were shamed and brought to justice. Then the State machinery and industry began to adapt to this civil activism through to co-option, confusion and if all else failed, good old-fashioned coercion.

Co-option

By far the easiest and most cost effective solution for nipping those annoying greens in the bud. Co-option is achieved by adopting a pretence of concern for the environment. All one has to do is use the phrase ‘sustainable development’ ad infinitum, promise prompt enquiries into lapses, fund some silly environment governance or corporate social responsibility project, give away a few Green champion/guardian awards and nominate the troublemaker-in-chief to a ‘high-level’ committee. And of course a scripted speech on World Environment Day or Earth Day, followed by a  cocktail buffet helps too.

Confusion

A very laborious tactic but has great long-term benefits once the scheme is in place. Environment movements are smothered under elaborate legal mechanisms designed to ensure that the House always wins. The processes are designed to appear like a system of checks and balances with elaborate procedures, timeframes, public consultations and grievance redressal mechanisms. In short, bore the greens into submission or incomprehension with consultant/bureaucrat speak. The best example of this is the system of Environment Impact Assessments (EIA) created to give an illusion that environmental and social issues are taken into consideration before building a factory or power plant. The whole exercise is not dissimilar to the comforting but pointless safety drill on airplanes performed by smiling air hostesses. And everyone is a sucker for smiling air hostesses/stewards. In addition to EIAs, legal frameworks are designed such that legal appeals are carted from one court to the other and finally dismissed in some apex kangaroo court, especially if the government is at the receiving end.

Coercion

If the pesky Al Gore/Medha Patkar wannabe is not crying sustainable development from the rooftops or going bankrupt with legal bills, more drastic action is called for. To avoid public sympathy first tar with ‘anti-national/development/people’ label, add a dash of hired goons or frustrated police force and season with ‘rigorous imprisonment’ on a trumped up charge.

It’s happened again. Tigers wiped out of another National Park in India. Panna National Park now joins Sariska National Park in having ‘lost’ all its tigers. But Panna is different from Sariska in the sense that the warning bells were sounded from 2002 onwards and completely disregarded for 7 years by the State Forest Department in charge of the Park. If there is one word that encapsulates the loss of Panna’s striped felines, it is ‘Denial’ with a capital ‘D’. In India, ‘when the going gets tough, those in charge get denying’. Woe betide the wildlife warden who dares state that the tigers in his park are vanishing under his watch. Admission of failure is non-existent in Government circles and whistleblowers face severe consequences. The Forest Department has complete control over India’s Protected Areas and restricted access ensures lack of accountability. Hell, even the Forest Department does not know what is happening within their Parks.

The officer cadres of the Department usually have no background or interest in wildlife and only join for the ‘prestige’ and ‘salary for life’ offered by Indian Forest Service. Most of them view their training at the Wildlife Institute of India as a punishment and are not too pleased at being posted away from their native place, far from cities. They end up spending most of their time pushing paper instead of being in the field. The lower rungs of the Forest Department; rangers, foresters, forest guards and forest watchers bear the real burden of running the Park. They are poorly paid, ill equipped and lack motivation. The Forest Department seldom has the support of local communities as many of the Parks were designated without public consultation and claims were not settled.

The poaching game has changed and become more professional and organised. An intricate network of poachers, transporters and middlemen has made the big fish even more difficult to catch. Only lately have poachers and middlemen been prosecuted by the law after seizures of wildlife products. The Forest Department has no intelligence gathering mechanism in place on the ground and the recently created Wildlife Crime Control Bureau and National Tiger Conservation Authority only react to events in an investigative role. Poachers are still using snares and gin traps to catch tigers and have not yet acquired automatic weapons like in Africa. However, an armed rebel militia called Maoists or Naxalites could be a major potential threat if they take up poaching to finance their struggle.

Habitat loss has meant that tigers in India are being confined to small forest islands and inbreeding depression will soon be a major problem. But organised poaching and an unaccountable Forest Department could hasten the process manifold.

The G8 summit in Italy showcased a real sense of urgency to tackle climate change. There was a call for “strict and reasonable guidelines on GHG emissions” and a “revised framework to ensure that promises were kept”. Clean energy commitments with international cooperation and joint research  for improving efficiency of exisiting renewable energy options was promoted. Energy efficiency with subsidies and labelling for green tech were advocated. Unfortunately, this high level of commitment, cooperation and foresight was not voiced by political representatives of the G8 countries but by their 16 year old youth representatives who convened the J8 (Junior 8 ) summit in Rome.

The real G8 leaders had nothing really new to add. All we got was a conservative Declaration that reaffirms pre existing positions. This suggests that they are; 1) leaving a lot of room for manouvering in Copenhagen or 2) think that they can get away with making any sort of commitment, however insubstantial. Some examples;

1. They agreed to a 2°C limit on temperature rise from pre-industrial levels. Too little, too late.

2. They agreed to push for an 80% reduction in GHG emissions by 2050. Not enough really. No midterm (2020) commitments though, making developing countries all the more reluctant to sign on to emissions reductions commitments around that time.

3. Recognised that halting deforestation and degradation is a vital component of emissions mitigation. Nothing new here.

4. Agreed to create a Global Partnership for clean carbon technology and doubling investment by 2015 in green tech.

5. Considered climate financing through matched funding and/or creation of a Green Fund.

Its only words

July 8, 2009

You’ve heard these a million times. At seminars, in advertisements, from corporate types to environment gurus and basically everyone trying to cover their nether regions with a green fig leaf. What do they mean? Who knows. Cause they have been used and abused for so long that nobody really knows what they mean anymore. But if you ain’t using em, you ain’t in the know.  They do have a plethora of uses these non-phrases. They make any project look good on paper, justify any NGO-corporate collaboration, tick boxes of donor institutions, make conferences appear less like reunions, create new job titles, help consultants pay the mortgage and in general make morons appear less like morons.

Synergy approaches

Interdisciplinary focus

Sustainable development paradigms

Inclusive decision-making

Participatory processes

Promote transparency

Climate resilience

Intangible ecosystem services

Road to Copenhagen

Common but differentiated responsibility

Best practice

Managing ecosystems

Natural resource management

Strategic interventions

Sustainable future

Ecosystem integrity

Key indicators

Governance mechanisms

Enhance sequestration

Socially equitable

Equitable sharing of benefits

Cutting edge conservation

Development imperatives

Emerging issues

Global South

Energy poverty

Livelihood security

Decentralized decision-making processes

Stakeholder dialogue

Mainstreaming the environment

Monitoring and reporting cycles

Intrinsic value of nature

Drivers of change

Adaptive management

Humanity is inextricably linked

Underpinning human well-being

Building a broader constituency

Maintain landscape connectivity

I.O.U

July 6, 2009

Clean Development Mechanisms projects (offsets), Adaptation Fund, World Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (avoided deforestation), etc. are some of the ways developed countries are going to pay developing countries for screwing up the climate over the past 200 years. The money is also supposed to help developing countries avoid the high carbon route to economic development, a bit like how they bypassed landline connections for mobile phones in the past decade. But the economic crunch has meant that developed countries are too busy bailing out banks and bloated companies to be contributing much to the climate kitty. An interesting development that appears to pay the piper without breaking the bank is debt relief. The United States recently wrote off $30 million in debt owed by Indonesia in return for protecting its forests. The Indonesian Government is commited to placing the money in a fund for 8 years from which it will issue grants for forest protection and regeneration.

It does sound like a good scheme as it seems to provide the finances and donor verification but with the overall responsibility and accountability for forest protection resting with the Indonesian Government. But what is in it for the donor country? A $30 million publicity stunt is expensive even by U.S standards. It turns out that when donor countries write off a portion of the recipient country’s debt, it is counted as official development assistance (ODA) from the donor country.  In the 1960s economically advanced countries agreed (but not commited) that they must strive to provide developing countries with ODA to the tune of 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI). Though overall the ODA has been increasing, very few countries manage to set aside the 0.7% GNI target. Thus, debt relief is a convenient way of meeting ODA commitments without emptying the treasury.

Another issue which makes this convenient for donor countries is that funds provided for climate change adapation and mitigation to developing countries is also counted as ODA. Many climate change activists are against this and want climate change funding to be additional to development aid. It is seen as a means to repay the cost of unsustainable development that fuelled progress in developed countries for the past 200 years and to convince developed countiries to eschew the same model. So far, the Netherlands is the only country that has pledged to separate climate adaptation funding from ODA. ODA money is also associated with geopolitics and this may prevent the disbursement of funds to the countires most affected by climate change. If developed countries do not come clean about climate change financing, they will be percieved with the distrust and suspicion usually reserved for scum such as unscupulous loan sharks and cunning village moneylenders.

350 or three hundered and fifty or CCCL. 350 BC was the year when Aristotle argued that the earth was spherical. A significant moment in human history no doubt, but not the reason why 350 is the most important number in the world. That title goes to the proportion of CO2 in the atmosphere that scientists are increasingly stating as the safe upper limit; 350 ppm (parts per million). Consider this; prior to the Industrial Revolution the proportion of CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere was believed to be 275 ppm. It was 275 ppm when old Aristotle was arguing the world was not flat in 350 B.C and during all of human history. And 275 ppm is a good number as we need some CO2 in the atmosphere to keep the earth warm enough for survival.

But things began to change in the past 200 years that mark our love affair with fossil fuels. No disrespect to fossil fuels. Madame Coal, Oil and Gas were ideal mistresses. They were easy to find, extract, transport, use and unlike their human counterparts brought no guilt. All this has changed in recent decades. Now fossil fuels are harder to find and extract as larger reserves are found in inaccessible places like under the sea and in politically unstable countries.They are now saddled with a guilt trip as well. In the 1980s we knew enough about the molecular structure of CO2 and its ability to trap heat. Scientists were beginning to realise that all the millions of tonnes CO2 being released into the atmosphere every year was bound to  have consequences. By 1995, the correlation between CO2 and temperature rise was established beyond a doubt. 15 years of climate change skepticism, vested interest lobbying and quest for double digit growth later, we are now at 387 ppm of CO2. And already we are experiencing the effects of climate change.

The decade of 1998-2007 was the warmest on record. Drought, floods, retreat of glaciers, melting of polar ice caps, coastal erosion and spread of diseases & pests are affecting us NOW at 387 ppm of CO2. It is obvious that we should be aiming for something below 350 ppm to have any chance of adapting to a changing climate. The Draft Negotiation Text for a post-2012 climate agreement does list 350 ppm as a commitment. Accordingly this translated to developed countries reducing CO2 emissions by more than 85% of 1990 levels by 2050. However, 350 ppm is only 1 of 4 options listed in the Draft for countries to negotiate on in December at Copenhagen.  The 450 ppm option is not good enough (particularly for small island countries) as we are already struggling to cope at 387 ppm. The  2 degrees celsius limit option presumes we can control the earth’s temperature like an oven (what we have control of is the amount of CO2 we emit).  The global 2 tonnes CO2 per capita could mean that the poor everywhere could be subsidising the big emitters. Thus, the only effective and equitable target is 350 ppm. Get real, get 350.

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.