Anthropocene is us

November 18, 2012

Scientists, new-age hippies and religious folk seldom agree on many things. However, one thing they do agree on is how small we all are in the grand scheme of things. Galaxies, Gaia and God have been used to dwarf us puny humans and make us feel small and transitory. They hack away at our ego by pointing out our insignificance. But if you are in the mood for an ego boost, how about a whole geological epoch named after your species? Welcome to the Anthropocene.

Anthropocene marks the point when humans started to change the environment more than they were shaped by it or adapted to it. We were not really masters of the universe yet, but were no longer slaves to the elements and natural cycles. The most important shift that marks the transition from the prior Holocene epoch to the current Anthropocene was that we began to affect the Earth system at a global level some 250 years ago. Climate, biogeochemical cycles and energy balance were no longer immune to our activities. Melting of glaciers and sea ice, sea-level rise, ocean acidification, global warming acquired a human fingerprint.

And like at a crime scene, this human fingerprint will testify before a jury of the future. As we continued to increase the scale of our activities, we literally etch our epoch into stone. All our deforestation, water & land diversion, soil erosion have been recorded in lake and ocean sediments and stand testimony to the impact we’ve had in such a short period of time. The bubbles in Antarctic ice and the rings of trees in Siberia record our reliance on fossil fuels.

Yes, we have left our mark. So do taggers, vandals, litterers, public urinators and defacers of monuments.

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Part driven by a primitive urge to crucify our heroes and part by a voyeuristic longing to look at somebody else’s inbox, news of the now infamous leaked climate emails spread faster than you could say ‘Copenhagen’. Yes it’s true; despite breathing the rarefied air of science, scientists are sometimes seized by the impulse to get back to being plain old Clark Kent again.  Politicians have affairs, celebrities do drugs and scientists…er..um.. express personal views.

Not such a big deal you might think. But when the stakes are this high and world is on the precipice of a paradigm change, the personal becomes the profane. However, the truth is that frustration is getting to them scientists. Climate models that provide more questions than answers, inconvenient/incomplete data that blows holes in hypotheses, demands on time from meetings, conferences and workshops not to mention climate sceptics and sceptical decision-makers.

Some excerpts of the good, bad and ugly in a climate scientist’s inbox

(To see all the emails visit http://www.eastangliaemails.com/emails.php?page=1&pp=100)

The Good

“This is a complex issue, and your misrepresentation of it does you a dis-service. To someone like me, who knows the science, it is apparent that you are presenting a personal view, not an informed, balanced scientific assessment”

“When scientists color the science with their own PERSONAL views or make categorical statements without presenting the evidence for such statements, they have a clear responsibility to state that that is what they are doing. You have failed to do so. Indeed, what you are doing is, in my view, a form of dishonesty more subtle but no less egregious than the statements made by the greenhouse skeptics, Michaels, Singer et al. I find this extremely disturbing”

The Bad

“Remember all the fun we had last year over 1995 global temperatures, with early release of information (via Oz), “inventing” the December monthly value, letters to Nature etc etc? I think we should have a cunning plan about what to do this year, simply to avoid a lot of wasted time”

“As always I seem to have been away bullshiting and politiking in various meetings for weeks! I try to convince myself that this is of use to us as a dendrochronological community but I am not so sure how much that is really true these days”

The Ugly

“Our population is only 25 % of yours so we only get 1 for every 4 you have. His name in case you should come across him is  Piers Corbyn. He is nowhere near as good as a couple of yours and he’s  an utter prat but he’s getting a lot of air time at the moment”

“The other stuff is of course interesting but I would have to see it and the board would want the larger implications of the stats clearly phrased in general and widely understandable (by the ignorant masses) terms before they would consider it not too specialised. I suspect that this might not be straight forward”

Commons sense

November 19, 2009

Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize for Economics this year. So who cares? Economists are not exactly the flavour of the season right now. After all it was economists who thought subprime mortgages were a good idea and look what a mess that has got us in. As if running economies on rampant consumerism financed by debt wasn’t bad enough in the first place. It seems the only thing economists are good at is finding new ways of getting people and countries into debt.

Hence it should come as no surprise that Ms. Ostrom is also interested in consumption. But what makes her Nobel prize material is that is she studies how we consume resources that all of us (including future generations) own and manage. Most of us are familiar with Hardin’s ‘tragedy of the commons’ theory that basically says commonly owned resources will be exploited by free-riders who will make the good guys look like morons and eventually result in collapse of the system. Hence, we end up with overgrazing, overfishing, overhunting, etc. This theory has been embraced by governments and private entities to reinforce the idea that the Common Pool Resource (CPR) system is inevitably doomed to failure and we need external intervention (state or private) to manage our natural resources.

Ms. Ostrom has studied a truckload of different CPR systems around the world and believes that they cannot be so casually dismissed as viable alternative to public or private sector management. She has seen that humans, despite all their deficiencies, can cooperate and work something out without killing each other. She also believes that the bad rep of CPR systems is not usually attributable to failure of the system itself. Factors internal to the group such as lack of communication, trust and a sense of stewardship can seriously affect the success of a CPR system. External factors such as interference from central authorities, lack of autonomy and conflicting regulations can undermine the efforts of communities to manage their commons.

The reason why Ms. Ostrom’s work is so important today is that we are faced with the incredible challenge of managing the ultimate commons- Our Atmosphere. We only have one atmosphere which is common to all of us. Like any CPR it is a finite resource in the sense that it only has a limited capacity to absorb greenhouse gases. We are close to this limit or might even have exceeded it. The amount of carbon space in the atmosphere is scarce.  Until now we have paid handsomely for fossil fuels from the ground but nothing for the atmosphere to absorb its combusted waste. Economists Peter Barnes and Marc Breslow put it another way “It is not oil that is in short supply, it’s sky“. In their article titled ‘Pie in the Sky’ they argue that it is possible and necessary to fix the current market flaw that has so far ignored atmospheric scarcity rent.

However, it is in theory not an impossible problem to fix. Like any finite resource, all that needs to be done is determine who owns the atmosphere and charge non-owners for using it. Like Ms. Olstrom, Barnes and Breslow also believe that the atmosphere should belong to citizens in trust. They don’t trust governments as they have a history of favouring the elite and selling natural resources below market value. Unlike traditional scenarios like land grants in exchange for infrastructure, the private sector could not give much to the public in return for control of the atmosphere. They argue for the creation of a Sky Trust financed by emissions permits auctioned to fossil fuel companies for whatever the market could bear. The trust would pay equal dividends to all citizens. To address equity issues they propose that 25% of the revenue from permits be diverted to a transition fund for communities worst affected by climate change and to help those adversely affected by the shift to a low carbon economy.

The Sky Trust is not really a far-fetched idea. It is inspired by the Alaskan model where natural resources of the state belong to its people. The state constitution was amended in 1976 to transfer 25% from oil revenues to a Permanent Fund. Half of this is used to finance schools, highways and public projects while the rest is paid in equal dividends to all Alaskans (this dividend amounted to $1770 in 1999). Whatever the mechanism, consumers must pay for what they use especially for a resource that is limited and whose overuse can have catastrophic consequences. This would help avert Hardin’s ecological tragedy of the commons and also the economic tragedy of loss of commons to commoners.

Lip Service

September 24, 2009

The sun has set on the 2009 Summit on Climate Change at the U.N HQ in New York. Despite the media getting its knickers in a twist, the summit faithfully followed the ‘set menu’ pattern of previous climate summits. Kids pleading to ‘save the planet’, green celebrities stating ‘time is running out’  and world leaders reading out ‘what needs to be done’ speeches. Oh yes, the emissions generated by flying everyone to the summit were offset by funding a tidy little project in poverty land. The awards for the outstanding performers of the Summit go to…

1. The most confusing statement: Barack Obama, President of the United States

“Unease is no excuse for inaction. And we must not allow the perfect to become the enemy of progress”

2. The most feel-good but highly unlikey statement: Hu Jintao, President of China

“China stands ready to join hands with all countries to build an even better future for the generations to come”

3. The most honest: Swedish Prime Minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt

“We are only 76 days from the Copenhagen meeting- but the negotations are going far too slow and they are still lacking real progress. We are close to a deadlock.”

4. The most funny without intending to be: French President, Nicolas Sarkozy

“Considering how complex this negotiation is, a new summit before Copenhagen is needed”

5. The most heart-breaking: President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives

“We at the Maldives desperately want to believe that one day our words will have an effect, and so we continue to shout them even though, deep down, we know that you are not really listening”

Dirty debt

September 9, 2009

With the climate change summit not far away in December in Copenhagen there is a perceptible buzz about possible outcomes and consequences. While few countries are keen to accept tough emission targets, nobody wants to be labelled as the spoilsport who sabotaged the ‘deal that could save the planet’. However, there are disturbing signs of ‘scapegoat hunting’ and ‘excuse exploration’ even before delegates have booked their flight tickets for the summit. One such example is placing all the onus on developing countries as deal makers or breakers. Media and think tanks in developed countries (that are responsible for the great majority of past as well as current CO2 emissions) are increasingly trying to shine the spotlight on developing countries to divert attention from their own unwillingness to adopt tough emission cuts or clear mid-term targets. As a result, even developing countries that have shown an interest in embracing a low carbon development strategy are feeling like the schoolkid who is being bullied for his lunch money.

The situation with developing countries is this; They will not accept binding emission reductions until the carbon inequity issues are addressed first. Developed countries have to pay developing countries for;

1. Reducing their legitmate share of the historically available carbon space from 1800 to present day.

2. Currently consuming more than their fair share of the carbon space.

3. The consequences of extreme weather events like floods and droughts that can be scientifically attributed to human-induced climate change.

4. Climate change adaptation infrastructure like flood defenses, relocation of displaced people, crop technology, etc.

Not to mention the tranfer of technology for renewable power generation that had been promised but nor delivered since the Kyoto protocol.

Martin Khor of the South Centre estimates that the total bill will amount to $ 23 trillion. This may seem like a fantasy number but let us not forget that bailout package for failed banks financed by the U.S Governments alone is expected to add up to $ 23.7 trillion by this year. Even if we take into account that climate change was acknowledged formally only in 1992 and write off the historical carbon debt (1800-1992), we are still left with a bill of $ 3.9 trillion according to Fraser Durham of Carbon Sense. He also states that this amount is roughly equal to the monetary debt of all developing countries. And this just begins to takes care of the carbon equity issue. It does not however magically make the CO2 emissions from developed countries disappear (only realistic emission reduction targets, regular verification and strict penalties can do that). What it does is make the climate change negotiations a more level playing field.

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.

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.

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.