Friday, September 13, 2013

Must Read: Indian Floods

This is a must read. This makes a good point about the floods that hit Northern India earlier this year. It shows how it was "runaway building projects, dams and official failures that made them catastrophic".

The last paragraph is also really telling: "The present EAC [Expert Appraisal Committee] has approved all 262 projects placed before it over six years, without seriously evaluating their impact or the rivers' carrying capacity."

Thursday, July 18, 2013

In-fashion phrases (on the environment)

Something that always bothers me is when my students are asked what should be done to save energy (or global warming, etc.) their answer is always the same - turn off the lights, turn off electronic equipment not being used, buy efficient equipment, blah, blah, ...

While these answers are good for themselves, I really wish they would consider the whole picture and think about what could be done to seriously help the environment.

Some examples:

Water How to conserve: "Don't run water when you brush your teeth". OK, but almost 80% of all water worldwide is used by agriculture. What we therefore need is a radical rethink of the way agriculture is done. Today's agriculture is mostly monoculture, highly irrigated, large-scale, corporate farms.

What we really need to look at is Water Security as the UN recently discussed.

Energy and Global Warming Turning off the lights is a good idea, but it does not address the large-scale inefficiencies of industry, utilities, etc. And to solve issues such as global warming we must phase out using fossil fuels as soon as possible. Other things include removing oil subsidies, improving power grids and using micropower instead of macropower.

Even though we try to push renewable energy the students still parrot the phrases such as "sun does not shine all the time" or "the wind does always blow", but ignore the developments in energy storage and distribution. On the other hand they seem not to understand that are some concerns about (first generation) biomass.

Solid Waste and Water Pollution "Don't throw trash in the water" (solves two things at once!). For water pollution this is a small part of the problem. Human waste (sewage) and effluents from factories are much more important. For solid waste it does not actually reduce the amount of waste generated and therefore does not solve the waste problem (it solves littering but that is another issue).

"Pass a law" - the cop out answer. I have seen it in everything from solid waste to air pollution to biodiversity. Of course my response is always what law should be passed, what specific aspects are to be regulated, enforcement, and numerous other issues.

My real goal is to make people understand the problem not simply give me memorized expressions that have no meaning.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Biodiversity - recent results

Even though climate change has been the big thing in the media, biodiversity is also an extremely important issue. Of course, the two are linked, as evidenced by the important role biodiversity played in the World Bank's recent report on climate change.

Actually, quite a bit has happened with the last five six months on biodiversity.

In October, 2012, we had the 11th Conference of the Parties (COP-11) of the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD). At the Conference we had a presentation by the executive secretary of CBD stating the there is a lack of the data necessary to achieve the targets which where agreed to at COP-10. There was no world-wide monitoring of biodiversity (only monitoring in specific areas) and much of the data was not open access.

One item agreed was to have more science-based policies. As a part of that we had the first meeting in January of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), which will collect and review scientific data on biodiversity. It is modelled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This is great news as it will give campaign for biodiversity better science background. There was some problem in getting experts on a world-wide basis, but otherwise a good development.

At COP-11 we also had a directive telling countries to take a precautionary approach to topics such as synthetic biology and geoengineering. I feel this is especially important considering all of the hype (much generated by the media) we have had over these topics.

The developed countries at the meeting also pledged to double financial resources to protect biodiversity. This would mean they would meet 75% of their biodiversity targets by 2020. However, as I said a number of times, without any specific dollar amounts this can be a lot of hot air.

During the meeting (but not part of COP-11 proper) there was some good news in the announcement of an agreement between the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the CBD secretariat to work together on deforestation and biodiversity. This allows for a coordinated approach to these issues instead of either agency simply doing things on their own accord.

One part of the CBD that is less well known is the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. COP-11 voted to include socioeconomic effects on issues related to living modified organisms (LMOs). This is very important as often the problem with this and related technology it is often not just the science that is important, but how it is used.

Lastly, we had a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITIES) in Bangkok last month. Some very interesting and good desicions we made at that meeting. The most interesting is the desicion to add some shark species to CITIES, What is significant about this is really the first time that CITIES has addressed fisheries, an area that previous has been considered off-limits. They have also added some major hardwood timber species (such as ebony) to the list. Further expanding into forestry issues.

Also 47 freshwater turtle and tortoise species (44 are native to Asia) have been added. Over half of all freshwater turtles are endangered, many due to the trade in exotic pets. Interestingly, this was proposed jointly by the USA and China.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Why we need Labor Day?

The recent tragedy in Bangladesh demonstrates the real need for international Labor Day, which was yesterday (May 1).

The event in Bangladesh is a good example of where the push for profits for a few has been detrimental to the well-being of the majority of the working class people. This report by Human Rights Watch demonstrates the whole problem.

In fact the need for the ideas behind labor day are more than ever. Businesses today are demanding that they have a right to do whatever they want with workers. They feel they have the right to fire people at will. They fight against minimum wages while giving huge salaries to top executives. They aer increasingly using temporary workers -- workers who have almost no benefits and little rights. And large companies are continuing to take over other companies. When these merges happen one of the first things that occurs is the laying off of workers.

Look at what is happenning in Greece and elsewhere in Europe. The greeks are being told they have to undergo "austerity cuts", that is, cuts in benefits which go to workers and their families and to those without work. All of this is being pushed by financial institutions, big business, and the the "markets".

A final note: It is interesting the difference in reaction to the events in Boston (terrorism) and Bangladesh (disaster). Many, many more people died in Bangladesh (400+ versus 3).

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Stern, Climate Change, and the IMF

Recently, there was an article by World Resources Institute (WRI) referring to a lecture given by Lord Nicholas Stern at a discussion between WRI and the IMF with the World Bank.

The economist Lord Stern is famous for his "Stern Review" outline the ecomonimc argument for climate change. At the meeting he said that his original report underestimated the effect of climate change. Lord Stern says that the obstacle to climate change is the lack of understanding in three areas: real risk of climate change, the benefits of an alternative pathway, and need for collaboration and mutual understanding.

Lord Stern is 100% right. But that is not the reason for this article. Rather, I object to the other participants -- the World Bank and especially the IMF. Yes the World Bank has made some progress recently, due in a large part to the new president of the bank who has come from the world of NGO's and not the financial world.

But the IMF! That is a joke. Just look at what they have been doing to Europe in the last six months. They have encouraged less control of the economy by the people and more toward big business without regards to the costs to the environment or to society (that is ordinary society, not the elite society).

For example, one item mentioned in the WRI article is that the IMF is opposed to oil subsidies. That is news to me! When the IMF discussed the poor US economy it made not one mention of the huge oil subsidies that the US spends. Nor has it made any mention of oil subsidies during the crisis in Europe. Indeed it seeems to support giving huge subsidies ("bailouts") to the banks which caused the problems in the first place.

Yes, I know that the IMF only gives loans to governments for building, "capital" and not for specific projects; however, it does require certain government policies. And as far as I know the IMF does not consider ennvironmental policy at all.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

GMO - How They are Really Used

Note: The following is a reprint of an article I originally wrote in 2007. I had to remove the old one because I was getting too many spammed comments. The issues still remain relevant to today.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO's) are big news today. For a quick refresher, GMO's involve replacing or adding genes from one organism to another in order to add a trait (such as drought resistance) or to to remove an undesirable trait.

Much has been written for and against GMO's and I won't repeat these arguments here. I personally have nothing against GMO's in terms of technology. However, my concern is with how GMO's are used.

The best way to show what I mean is by using some examples. Monsanto, the largest producer of GMO seeds, developed crops which were more tolerant of the herbicide Roundup (also made by Monsanto). After developing this, they then went to the EPA and asked that the legally allowed residual of Roundup on food crops be increased. What??? Did Roundup suddenly become less toxic?! No, they wanted to sell more Roundup.

A second example, is from Brazil. They have produced soybeans which can grow in more diverse environments. So now they are clearing parts of the Amazon basin to grow soybeans where previously they could not grow them.

But the most disturbing of all cases is what is being done to the seed market. For a farmer, you need seeds for your next crop. You basically have two options: use part of your previous crops as seed or buy seeds from a seed company. What the seed companies which sell GMO seed are doing is telling farmers that they cannot use their previous crop of GMO for seed. Some companies are going to the point of providing sterile seeds, which mean that the crops cannot be used for seed at all.

This means that (a) the farmers must buy seed rather than use their own costing them more money, and (b) that they must buy their seeds from one company reducing competition. Where this is very important is in developing countries, here the farmers really do not have the resources to continually purchase seed from big biotech companies.

A final point. GMO's have been mentioned as the second "green revolution". I highly doubt that. Just remember what happened with the first green revolution. Increased use of fertilizers and pesticides with a result of damage to the ecosystem (including the agricultural ecosystem) and increased risk to health.

Update (March 2013): An important court case relevant to the discussion above was just recently argued in front of the US Supreme Court last month. In it Monsanto sued a farmer for using seeds he took from his own crops. The decision will be given later this year.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Climate Talks at Doha

As I have traditional done I will take a look at the most recent negotiations on climate change which took place in Doha, Qatar last month. This was the annually scheduled United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties (COP).

Reminder: The Kyoto Protocol expired last month. Therefore, the last few years have been concerned with what to do next. Last year they went a long way to getting this done, but that was not enough.

If you listen to the media, you probably would have not even have known that there was a meeting, as there was very little coverage. I have heard some people say that climate change is finally getting the attention it deserves, but not from this showing.

Here are some highlights (but mostly lowlights):

At Doha, rich countries have pledged that they will pay poorer countries for "loss and damage due to climate change". However, no mechanism or funding has been agreed to. From the past experiences, without specific amounts often nothing actually happens except for words and hot air (pun intended).

In Durban (2011) there was an agreement to fund adaptation to climate change. But now the developed countries are complaining about the recession and are now giving no pledges of money through 2020. It is interesting that these same countries cannot give out funding for adaptation, yet can still give out huge subsidies to big oil and coal, the burning of which leads to the biggest generation of greenhouse gases.

At Durban, they agreed on negotations for a new treaty to start in 2020, but did not agree on anything for the interim period. In Doha, there was good news and bad news! The countries have agreed to extend the Kyoto Protocol to 2020. However, only 15% of current greenhouse gases are covered since the US has not ratified Kyoto and some countries have announced they have no intention of adhering to the protocol (especially Canada, Japan, and Russia). Note also that the number 2 emitter (after the USA) of greenhouse gases is China, which is not required to reduce emissions under Kyoto.

Note that all of this comes after some very recent reports which show both the current and future problems. One was a report (pdf) by the World Bank (not usually an environmentally friendly group) warning that we are not doing enough and temperature rises could be as high as 4 degrees if things continue as currently. The other was a research report showing that sea levels are rising faster than that predicted by the IPCC.