28 May 2009

daffodils in january

Daffodils are often the first signs of spring. The shoots poke their crisp green leaves through the snow and blossom into a startlingly delicate yellow bell. They usually bloom around Easter and are also called 'lent lilies'. Throughout the centuries the daffodil gained it's fame in many different countries and cultures. The daffodil is associated with renaissances coincidentally blooming around the time of Easter which is the celebration of rebirth, and the return of spring - the season of new beginnings.

My fascination with daffodils started when I was about ten years old and first read Wordsworth's 'Daffodils'. I found it amazing that a field of yellow flowers could inspire in a man such profound thought. The first time I actually saw them was years later in Scotland. I saw them in a florist’s and I recognised them immediately. They were incredibly beautiful, with a vivid yellow colour, which is, quiet impossible to take your eyes off. I imagined how Wordsworth would have felt when he saw a whole field of them. If a bunch of them in a florist’s, 200 years since then; could make me smile – then I could imagine what profound thought it would have inspired in a poet who saw a whole field in animated action.

Now of course weather patterns are not as predictable. The Easter lilies bloom as early as January in some places. This is frightening because it implies that our seasons are changing. The blooming of daffodils three months earlier isn't the only indication of weather changes. Autumns and winters are getting shorter which has implicated for global agriculture, ripening of fruits, flowers and natural methods of pest control. These changes also interfere with animal reproduction and behaviour. People noticing these changes are not just climatologists but those whose professions are intricately connected to the land - farmers, fisherman and hunters.

This 'global wierding' of weather is not something that is restricted to certain parts of the world. Within the Indian sub-continent, the monsoon patterns are changing. Global weather change is not a linear change but an exponential change where an increase in temperature affects not just hotter heat spells but also droughts, heavier snowfall, typhoons etc - weather phenomenon is an intricate balance that is finely calibrated and small changes makes impacts that we are not immediately aware of.

Simple creations like the daffodils, seemingly have no real purpose on earth except to beautify it. In spite of being so small and insignificant, it seems to me that they realize their purpose on this earth, in ways we never could…

25 May 2009

water wars

Water is one the most precious resources essential for life. It is the most adundant molecule on the Earth and constitutes 75% of the surface. This exact same percentage of water is also present in our bodies. Inspite of all the abundance of water, only a small percentage is actually fit for consumption. Water is also a non-renewable resource and something that everybody takes for granted.

Rainfall patterns altered by climate change and worsened by inequity in the water distribution system has led to a water crisis in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. The local incident was one among many where a mob of about six people killed a family for illegally drawing water from the municipal supply even as onlookers rushed back and forth to collect water before the pipe ran dry.

The poorest areas are being affected the most because of inequitable water distribution. If this isn't a wake-up call of what water scarcity can do to a society, we're not sure what would be more effective, short of actual war. As outlined by the documentary Blue Gold: World Water Wars, issues like privatization, unfair distribution, pollution and ecological changes causing increased shortages are some of the major factors working against everyone having the water they need. India's troubles are, frighteningly enough, an illustration of what will escalate if all nations move slowly on changing the way we handle this vital resource.

Conserving water is something that we can all do. It is not even particularly hard. Water conservation is not only something that is crucially important, it should be come mandatory. In the developing world, 90% of all wastewater still goes untreated into local rivers and streams. Some 50 countries, with roughly a third of the world’s population, also suffer from medium or high water stress and 17 of these extract more water annually than is recharged through their natural water cycles. The strain not only affects surface freshwater bodies like rivers and lakes, but it also degrades groundwater resources. It is estimated that by 2050 water shortage world over will be so accutely felt that the wars of that generation will be over water and not oil.

Depletion of water not only affects day-to-day human activities but will also bring a stand-still to any kind of manufacturing process as well as agriculture. The importance of water is something that cannot merely be expressed by writing about it. It involves seeing the other side as well and being aware of the daily struggle some people go through to obtain what the rest of us take for granted. Water is not merely a commodity of the rich but it is an essential to life.

Some things you can do to conserve water and ensure healthy water supplies:
  • Limit your shower time and avoid baths
  • Do not leave water running when you shave or brush your teeth
  • Do not buy bottled water - it takes five litres of water to make one litre of bottled water
  • Find ways to reuse 'grey' water
  • Make sure you do not have any leaks in your pipes and appliances
  • Collect rainwater
  • Think about what eventually ends up in water systems and be responsible in your use of cosmetics - consider going organic with soaps, shampoos etc

18 May 2009

monsoons, climate change and GDP

Monsoons are a phenomenon associated primarily with the Indian sub-continent. It is not just an actual wind pattern but an evoker of emotion in the Indian people. One of the things that brings together all of India is this amazing natural blessing that happens like clockwork year after year. It nourishes crops and dissipates some of the scorching summer heat. Inspite of the havoc it causes with transport systems, drainage and floods, the collective memories are that of rushing out to greet the first coming of rain and breathing in the intoxicating scent of damp earth.

The South-West monsoon and the retreating North-East monsoon form a weather pattern unique to India. The Indian monsoon is another one among many other casualties due to climate change. Effect of climate change on monsoons not only implies change in weather patterns but also a significant impact on agricultural output. Being a predominantly agricultural country, monsoons are essential for a good crop each other. This year, it is especially needed to navigate out of the recession. In the previous years, as the shares of agriculture in GDP shrank, so did the direct impact of monsoons on the economy. However, this year, with large sectors in severe economical downturn, this monsoons plays a crucial role in agricultural production and rural income and demand.

In order to achieve RBI's GDP growth estimates of 6% in 2009-10, it is imperative for agriculture to grow atleast 3% this year which is why a good monsoon is crucial. Monsoons are especially important for kharif crops - sugarcane, rice, corn, soybean and cotton that are sown in June-September. A good monsoon also increases soil moisture for rabi crops sown in winter like wheat. Monsoon-dependant crops account for nearly half of India's agricultural production and the income of about two-thirds of the country's population that lives on agriculture, directly or indirectly.

In the current economic scenario, a bad monsoon can substantially alter fortunes. This can affect sentiment in equity markets, particularly in companies that sell products in rural areas, including consumer goods, automobiles and farm inputs. All industries are currently banking on the rural farm sector at the moment to give the over-all economy a boost. Governments as well are looking for a good monsoon as a poor monsoon will push up the food subsidy bill. This soared from 19,000 crore earlier to 50,000 crore last year.

So much is dependant on the Rain Gods this year so the forecast by the Indian Meteorological Department of 96% rainfall spreads cheer. A forecast alone does not predict a good crop as it does not give any information about speed, timing, amount - often crucial when predicting floods.

The monsoon like many other global weather patterns depend on several factors. Human activities are disrupting the balance on which such weather systems depend on. The price of failure of such systems not only affect economy but also change an essential component of a country's spirit.

16 May 2009

quantifying biodiversity loss

Biodiversity is not getting the attention it deserves internationally. Climate change has had 1,382 mentions in British national newspapers. Yet, during the same period, biodiversity was mentioned just 115 times. The reason that biodiversity is taking the back-seat is that is it left primarily in the hands of conservationists who rally the 'cuteness' factor of conservation. This is the reason why the issue is being ignored while climate change has been taken progressively more seriously. This emotional guilt-trip doesn't quiet work with many people and most importantly with policy makers.

In order to start talking about biodiversity, the loss of it needs to be quantified in hard economic terms. But how do you quantify the loss of honey-bees? and polar bears? and so many many other species under threat. Current biodiversity laws almost make it sound that preserving biodiversity is obligatory. It has to become mandatory.

A loss of a species represents the loss of millions of years of evolution from the biological stand point. It also means that that loss is connected to many other aspects of the web of life in a myriad different ways that we are yet to comprehend. Every form of life on this planet stands not on its own but is supported by, and supports, other living things. Lose one species and you lose a vital part of some ecosystem.That means you lose not just a plant or an insect but a service: you lose the medicine that comes from that plant; you lose the pollination of crops which that insect provides. Climate change matters, not because the world mustn't get any hotter, but because the rate of change is too fast for species to keep pace. As species die, so biodiversity is depleted and with it the ecosystem services that such biodiversity provides. However, these arguments for biodiversity have proven to be much less compelling for business leaders than Nicholas Stern's report that climate change could cost us between 5% and 20% of global GDP by the end of the century.

The head of Deutsche Bank's Global Markets predicts that our current rate of biodiversity loss could see 6% of global GDP wiped out as early as 2050. Climate change does not just lead to biodiversity loss; causality works the other way around too. It is the loss of forest that is causing climate change. It would be comforting to think that we can control this process, which is linear and predictable. It is not. In nature, disruptions to the equilibrium led to turbo-charged changes. Yet nobody puts a value on pollination; national accounts do not reflect the value of ecosystem services that stop soil erosion or provide watershed protection. Economists call these externalities: things which we can take for granted and need not be ascribed a value. The economists are wrong. Unless we begin to value this natural capital in exactly the same way we value human or social capital, we will not begin to tackle the problem.

Biodiversity should be, as climate change is, a heads of governments' issue. Just as climate change has moved out of its environment cul-de-sac into mainstream government thinking to influence decisions on everything from transport to development and energy policies, so biodiversity and the ecosystem services they provide need to be considered in every government decision. The issue lacks a body like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to provide scientific assessments and advice to governments and the public.Most important of all, we need a global agreement with teeth to protect biodiversity that captures the imagination like Kyoto.

The alternative is not an option.

11 May 2009

sustainability - the flip side

The juxtaposition of sustainable development with ecology and development is a valid comparison and one that is open to debate. Development at an unprecedented rate cannot continue and the lack of proper ecosystem management is making it extremely difficult to support current rates of growth. Already the adverse effect of environmental abuse is being felt. There is a direct impact on world economy due to climate change – change in weather patterns, agricultural losses, increase in floods, tornadoes, droughts. All of these have impacts on world economy.

The definition of sustainability itself has large black-holes that need explanation. As a relatively new business model, it challenges the traditional notions of growth. Whilst a growing economy simply expands, a developing economy improves. Within the frame of the definition of sustainability there is no indication of how we can support current rates of growth "without compromising on the ability of future generations to support themselves". There is no basis on which to perform a projection analysis to figure out what resource use the future generation requires because we barely know what is acceptable today. However since there is a deceptive simplicity around the concept of sustainability, it is applied to every new business model.

The idea of sustainable development is based on two assumptions. The first is that we are running out of resources and the second is that economic growth is the cause of this depletion. However, resources are becoming less, not more, scarce. Agricultural yields for all the major crops like rice, corn, and wheat have been on the increase. Increased exploration of oil, coal and natural has been revealing that known reserves are expanding. This same phenomenon has been seen with metals like aluminum, zinc, iron, and copper where reserves have increased. Improved technology has ensured that more-conservative production techniques are encouraged and this in turn has ensured the exploration and new discoveries of underground reserves. Life expectancy, housing, nutrition and education levels are improving world over. In short, the prosperity we enjoy today is leaving future generations better off, not worse off.

If the definition of sustainable development incorporates the maximization of human welfare, then this is only possible if the legal system ensures property rights in order to ensure market operability. The definition of sustainability should incorporate the idea of right to development. The right to development and by proxy the right to environment can only be guaranteed when the tragedy of the commons is abolished. Since growth and increasing wealth leads to improved environmental quality by raising demands for it, economic growth cannot be the antithesis of sustainable development but the essence of it.

Political and economic systems based on property rights is the only base to sustainable development. Government regulation to stop growth is the antithesis of any development and will see a decline in environmental quality. Scarcity of resources is the excuse given for lack of institutions that ensure human freedom.

The biggest problem is that there is no common consensus that world governments and organizations can reach in order to resolve these issues. Additionally, any measure we have in place in terms of treaties etc are not mandatory not legally-binding. Unless there is some measure that legally enforces sustainable development, the change is going to be slow to come. At this point, 'slow' cannot be afforded.