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;

Commitments

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.

Financing

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.

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?

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.

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.

Honestly, this is not just another World Bank bashing post. Alright, the Bank does have something to do with it but only as another link in the chain of unsustainability and short-sightedness we call ‘development’. The World Bank has agreed to fund the $4.4 billion, coal-powered Tata Ultra Mega Plant that is expected to become operational in 2012. The coal plant is predicted to become one of the world’s top 50 highest greenhouse gas emitters, emitting more CO2 annually than the entire country of Tunisia. The loan comes barely a year after World Bank President, Robert Zoellick pledged to “significantly step up our assistance” in fighting climate change. The Tata Group does not have the best environment record either. Their soda-ash plant on Lake Natron in Tanzania is facing strong opposition for jeopardising the largest breeding site of the Lesser Flamingo whose impressive, pink congregations are wildlife documentary staples. Closer to home, its private Dhamra port in Orissa, India, has been criticised for preventing endangered Olive Ridley Turtles from accessing their traditional nesting sites along the Orissa coastline. Like the World Bank, the Tata Group invests in a lot of greenwashing by sponsoring small conservation projects.

Can’t really place all blame on the World Bank because it is these sort of ‘dirty’ plants that offer the fastest return on investments while also conveniently meeting its supposed mandate of reducing poverty. In fact, the scheme is so delicious that the Bank not only agreed to lend Tata $450 million for the Ultra Mega Plant but may also buy a $50 million stake in it for itself (Do banks laugh all the way to the bank as well?) Tata is a private company that only has to answer to its shareholders and meet the laughable environment clearance processes in India. As a developing country with no CO2 emissions commitments, India is exempt from any mandatory obligations to produce clean energy. The cheapest kind (for now) will do, thank you. The electricity produced will be siphoned off by industry and the insatiable big & small cities. Urban poor will be forced steal expensive Tata electricity while their rural cousins continue to burn cow dung cakes and firewood. Both serving their purpose as mascots of Indian poverty for the next coal plant loan and keeping India’s per-capita CO2 emissions low enough to argue for a case for exemption from environment commitments. Made to order. We would even put these poor folks on an carbon trading scheme if we could get away with it. Who cares about vanishing islands in the Sunderbans, disappearing villages along the East coast or unproductive apple orchards in the lower Himalayas. Misery, unlike CO2 emissions is not so willingly shared on a per-capita basis it seems.

We all know climate change is going to be the greatest long-term threat to wildlife. But we still seem to think that we could preserve our current biodiversity,ecosystems and ecosystem services with the same short-sighted conservation planning, hoping that plants and animals will somehow adjust or adapt. This is wishful thinking considering that governments are spending billions to help their human citizens adapt to current and future climate change by building sea walls, flood defence systems, early warning mechanisms and relocating millions from disaster prone areas. Dr. Barnosky, a palaeoecologist and author of ‘Heatstroke: Nature in an Age of Global Warming’ says that in the worst case scenario, it will be hotter in the year 2100 than it has been in at least 3 million years, which is longer than basically any species you can name has been on Earth. He also cautions that animals and plants are wired to evolve to adapt to change, but not at such a rapid pace.

So what options do we really have? Well, according to scientists, it seems like we can’t have our cake and eat it too.There will arise a conflict of interest between preserving exisiting biodiversity and our need for authentic wilderness areas.

If we want to preserve a species or an assemblage of species that would otherwise become extinct due to climate change, we will need to create ‘artificial’ biodiversity reserves. These reserves would be heavily managed to compensate for the negative effects of climate change and allow us to hold on to our precious biodiversity resource. Practices like ‘assisted migration’ where we intervene to assist poorly adapted species to relocate to more suitable areas, will become more common. Ecosystems such as grasslands could only be maintained in their current form by introducing better climate-adapted species to occupy the ecological niche left by poorly adapted species. For example, the prairies in North America would have to be stocked with elephants, wilderbeest and cheetahs to replace bison, pronghorn antelope and wolves which cannot take the heat. We will have to reconcile that these heavily managed biodiversity reserves will eventially assume the status of giant living museums or gene banks.

Simultaneously we need to create reserves free from human interference to sustain true ‘wilderness’. These wilderness reserves will see changing species and even extinctions within them as a natural consequence of unnatural, human-accelerated climate change. They may in all likelihood be dominated by species and ecosystems that we don’t particularly have a strong emotional affinity for. But they would be still be more authentic representations of wilderness than the heavily managed biodiversity reserves.

There are many such innovative ideas floating around to address conservation in a changing climate but the notion has not yet been incorporated into mainstream conservation planning. We expect governments and the private sector to respond quickly to the new climate realities but seem to bury our heads in the sand when it comes to assuming responsibility in the conservation sector. Rest assured, there will be no Noah’s Ark waiting when the floods come.