29 July 2009

the climate of health

One of the consequences of climate change is the impact it has on human health. According to an IPCC report, there are six health outcomes which are likely to be affected by climate change : respiratory diseases, vector-borne diseases (malaria and dengue), water-borne diseases (diarrohea and cholera), malnutrition, injuries and psychosocial stress. Urgent action is needed to strengthen the existing health systems to deal with the potential increase in health risks due to climate change.

CO2 emissions stimulate ragweed, some pollen-bearing trees and fungi, extending allergy and asthma seasons inducing respiratory disorders. Due to rise in temperatures, diseases that are of tropical origin are predicted to move into temperate zones. Geographic and environmental boundaries that once protected us from widespread disease outbreaks will not exist anymore - this is not only due to rise in temperatures but also increase in air travel and other factors. Viruses and bacteria long confined to living in a single species, or in one part of the world, can now quickly be moved to new areas and thrive in environments, animals or people unprepared for their arrival.

Changes in climatic conditions can also increase the frequency and severity of zoonotic diseases. Healthy animals depend on a healthy environment and when this is degraded, animal health both wild and domestic is compromised which affects humans adversely. Appreciation of the scale and type of influence on human health requires a new perspective which focuses on ecosystems. It also brings an appreciation of the complexity of the systems upon which we depend.

According to a WHO report, climate change will affect the pattern of deaths from exposure to high or low temperatures. In 2030 the estimated risk of diarrhoea will be up to 10% higher in some regions than if no climate change occurred. Estimated effects on malnutrition vary markedly among regions. By 2030, the relative risks for unmitigated emissions, relative to no climate change, vary from a significant increase in the South- East Asia region to a small decrease in the Western Pacific.

Proportional changes in the numbers of people killed or injured in coastal floods are large, although they refer to low absolute burdens. Impacts of inland floods are predicted to increase by a similar proportion, and would generally cause a greater acute rise in disease burden. While these proportional increases are similar in developed and developing regions, the baseline rates are much higher in developing countries. Changes in various vector-borne infectious diseases are predicted. This is particularly so for malaria in regions bordering current endemic zones. Smaller changes would occur in currently endemic areas. Already malaria slows economic growth in Africa by up to 1.3% each year. Since sub-Saharan Africa's GDP is around $300 billion, the short-term benefits of malaria control can reasonably be estimated at between $3 billion.

If the trend is to continue, similar costs are going to affect global economy predicted in the Stern review and can cost global economy huge amounts of money. Any monetary effort put into prevention and/or finding cures for diseases is money well-spent especially in the light of shifting temperatures.

under the sea

The Earth's oceans are symbols of boundless living wealth. They have provided nourishment and avenues for exploration for millenia. Currently, three-quarters of all stocks of commercially usable sea fish and shellfish have been severely exploited, almost to the point of extinction. This has resulted from a combination of consumer demand, lack of initiatives of governments and fisheries to push through with countermeasures.

However, the time has come now to sit back and take stock, so to speak if we are to continue to eat from the seas. Fish and seafood are the most important sources of protein in the daily diet of almost half the earth's population. According to the FAO global fish consumption is set to grow atleast 2% per year. But this increase in consumption patterns cannot be supported for very long in the face of depleting fish stocks.

Migratory species and large predators are worst affected: tuna, swordfish, halibut and shark. 90% of these varieties have been wiped out in just five decades. This not only has catastrophic effects on world economy but also unpredictable effects on ocean ecosystems of the world. In addition to exceeding catch amounts, fishing methods like bottom trawlers devastate coral reefs and habitats for juvenile fish. Other trawlers comb the seas often using sophisticated technology to ensure catch. Due to their huge nets as big as 100meters, there is also a high amount of by-catch which is usually discarded. Overfishing combined with climate change is putting incredible pressure on our oceans but scientists claim there is still hope for recovery if measures are in place now.

The oceans belong to everyone and therefore to no one, so the is nobody to take responsibility for the problem of overfishing. Countries like the Netherlands have pledged to only supply 'eco-fish' supplied from sustainably managed farms from 2011 which is a commendable step. Australia and New Zealand have devised a sort of trading system between fishermen and introduced individual caps for them. Consumers can do their role by educating themselves on what species they can eat and what species to avoid. Additionally there are guides printed and the most popular one seems to be Seafood Watch published by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, California which gives information on recommendations for your plate.

Seafood provides many essential nutrients - especially omega 3, 6 fatty acids - needed for well being. However there are many other foods that provide the same benefits so cutting down on amount of seafood consumed is a good way to reduce demand. Many high profile restaurants have dropped endangered fish species off their menus so it is time that other consumers also demand fish sourced from sustainable fisheries or aquaculture farms that support eco-friendly practices.

In conclusion: fish for your consumer choice.

21 July 2009

lipstick jungle

Everything is organic these days so why not your vanity kit? From the look of things they add into make-up, it should be! Make-up is a girl's best friend so why not make it friendly to the earth as well, not to mention kinder on your health. For the purposes of this article, make-up also includes toiletries.

Out of the several ingredients added to make-up and to
iletries there are many that are untested for safety, allergens and carcinogenicity. In fact, only 1% of all products are safety tested which is an alarming statistic.

The most worrisome ingredients are parabens, sodium laureth sulfate, heavy metals like lead and mercury (in lipstick and mascara), aluminium and zinc (in deodrants), synthetic perfumes and dyes. All of these apart from causing allergic reactions and other health concerns can also affect water supply. Fortunately there are several organic, natural, eco-friendly alternatives available.

Consider switching your toiletries to one that contains natural ingredients - in India some of the best brands are Himalaya, Biotique, Shanaz Hussain, FabIndia Organics, The Body Shop and my personal favourite - Lush. Brands and products vary from country to country of course but every country has its own bunch of naturally sourced, organic products.

If all else fails there are always
home recipes - I also found a video that has some interesting information. While you're at it don't forget to ask your mum or grandmum for advice! Good sources of information on where to start the switch can be found here and here. The lipstick jungle is difficult to negotiate but there are other options if you care to look.

The cosmetic industry is a veritable giant and very little regulation goes into protocols for testing across the board. The FDA does not review cosmetic ingredients for their safety before they come to market, nor does it have the authority to recall hazardous products.

According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, the average consumer (including teens) uses 15 to 25 cosmetic and personal-care products a day. These products will contain about 200 chemicals that have been added to preserve, dye and emulsify the products. Some are the same chemicals used in industrial manufacturing to soften plastics, clean equipment and stabilize pesticides. One widely used group of synthetic chemicals, parabens (alkyl-p-hydroxybenzoates), are used as antimicrobial preservatives in more than 13,000 cosmetic products. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states that all parabens -- methyl, propyl, butyl -- have been proved to interfere with the function of the endocrine system.

Reading labels won't always help you avoid these chemicals because the beauty industry doesn't always disclose every ingredient in its products. For example, phthalates are rarely mentioned on labels, so there's no way to tell whether they've been used. Phthalates keep your mascara from running, stop your nail polish from chipping and help fragrances linger.

Words like 'natural' or 'hypoallergenic' look reassuring, but they're basically meaningless. Products called 'natural', for instance, may include synthetic dyes and fragrances. 'Hypoallergenic' just means that the most common irritants are left out, but other problematic chemicals might still be in the mix. Cosmetics labeled 'organic' must contain 70% or more organic ingredients. It's important to choose products from trusted cosmetic and body care companies that use natural, certified organic, nontoxic and nonsynthetic ingredients.

According to the Safe Cosmetics Campaign,
avoid the following chemicals in cosmetics whenever possible: Butyl acetate, Butylated hydroxytoluene, Coal tar, Cocamide DEA/lauramide DEA, Diazolidinyl urea, Ethyl acetate, Formaldehyde, Parabens (methyl, ethyl, propyl and butyl), Petrolatum, Phthalates, Propylene glycol, Sodium laureth/sodium laurel sulfate, Talc, Toluene and Triethanolamine.

Photo Courtesy - www.treehugger.com

14 July 2009

environmentalism in india

One of the casualties of climate change is the Indian monsoon. I have blogged about it before and currently Greenpeace in India is running a Rainspotting project in order to study change in monsoons to feed into the larger climate story. Coming in from London to report is Grace Boyle - she is interning with Greenpeace for the course of the summer and has been blogging about her experiences with her own blog that she writes for the Independent. Grace's accounts are often stark and unflinchingly realistic.

Recently she asked me to write a small piece on environmentalism in India and to read it on her blog, look
here. Or just read on...

Environmentalism is kind of dead in India. This is my belief; mostly environmentalism in its most basic, intrinsic form is connected to the respect for the commons. Anytime someone teaches you not to litter, that someone is teaching you to respect the commons and by proxy igniting an environmental spark. In the absence of this education, both respect for the commons and environmentalism is a lost concept in India.

Environmentalism in India takes on many different forms however – with most of the urban population, it is something that is hyped and something that is ‘someone’ else’s problem. But they do not know who that someone else is and they refuse the responsibility of that someone else being them. Why should they? – with their fat paychecks, fancy cars and flash clothes?

Rural India – the ‘real’ India in so many ways, the India that is connected to the mysteries of this vast land and intrinsically connected to the many colours of her soil. They know. They notice; the changes, the peril that lies beneath those changes, the heart-break that goes with change that is unwanted. To them this change is almost perverse, like a clarion call before death finally comes.

There are some that embrace change and some that fight against it. On the side that fights, there are several organizations working in India to raise the profile of the issue. Public perception of this is varied from apathy to mild interest to outright support. The last category forms the smallest percentage – the apathy is most worrying. Consequences of global warming – the biggest battle that humankind faces barely brings a reaction to many people in India – surprisingly even the so-called informed young crowd.

So far this ‘green’ movement has been just that – a movement, something that can fade away, something that is ‘cool’ for now – like a fashion statement. The gravity behind it is lost somehow because the messengers are trivializing the issue, dumbing it down to reach across to the masses. My argument: concepts of environmentalism have enough there for it to cross over intellectual barriers – this dialing down is detrimental because it aims for a mass rather than a critical mass to hasten the tipping point.

Part of the reason for the inaction and apathy is that India has never been a revolutionary culture – it has been a culture that quietly hums along, taking everything that has been thrown in its way – accepting rather than rebelling. This has been ingrained in its peoples’ psyche so deeply that it will take much much more than threats of climate change to spur this mighty elephant into action.

13 July 2009

idealism in the modern world

Idealism is a philosophical concept of perception that shows the world as it should be. Most great art centers on the theory of idealism where the human spirit exists in an exalted status. Art has always expressed the various ways in which idealism clashes with reality and tries to bridge the chasms. Is idealism merely an artistic concept or can it exist side-by-side in the real world?

The modern world is rife with less than ideal situations. Today some of the biggest threats to our existence are the results of our own making. Poverty is present even in the so-called ‘developed’ nations, war and crimes against humanity are still rife in many parts of the world – all of this belies the progression of civilization. In an ‘ideal’ world these problems would not exist and humanity would live in harmony with its natural surroundings. This ideal is an Utopian dream, yet it is what we strive for.

There is the argument that war, poverty, natural disaster, disease etc exist for a reason – to maintain a balance. However in a world that has plenty of resources, an imbalanced distribution of wealth is certainly not justified. War is solely a man-made invention of seeking more power at the cost of the power-less. With global warming and climate change, natural disasters are on an unnatural rise as we are in essence changing the delicate balance upon which life on earth exists. In reality, we are no where close to reaching our idealistic dream and yet we keep trying. Without the added challenges, the human spirit would cease to exist. It is our folly as a collective conscience that we keep trying because we know there is a better way to be. We just do not know how to get there.

Is the gap between idealism and reality as wide as it seems? The question is out there for answering, examining and analyzing. Maybe it is one of those questions to which we will never have an adequate answer. All atrocities and sadness known to man also exist alongside with happiness and peace. The contrast is as vivid as night and day and the only way to bridge that gap is through kindness and understanding. The ‘back to basics’ approach to living in the fundamental key-stone of idealism and very few are able to incorporate that into realistic existence.

Idealism has always been a central concept of human existence propagated mainly through art. From the ancient Greek philosophers to modern musicians, the human race is bound tightly in a common aim to reach that realistically-ideal place where the disparities are narrower. The ability to envision an ideal is the human race’s single most important ability to keep us going through the roughest patches. It is the only belief that gives us resilience and something to look forward to. In short, the pursuit of the ideal is the very thing that keeps us fighting and tirelessly strive towards perfection.

prospecting biopiracy

Biodiversity prospecting is the exploration of wild plants and animals for commercially valuable genetic and biochemical resources. Through the use of new biotechnology, genes from any plant or animal can be transferred to another. Plant and animal breeders, use genes found in wild species and genetically engineered organisms are now being used for new industrial applications such as mining, waste-water treatment and carbon-dioxide scrubbing. The different biochemicals produced by species are of considerable value in the pharmaceutical and pesticide industries. The numbers of biodiversity prospecting ventures are growing rapidly and the flurry of interest and enthusiasm in biodiversity prospecting is taking place in a policy vacuum.

India is rich in biological diversity and associated traditional and contemporary knowledge systems relating thereto. Conservative estimates have put the monetary value of medicinal plants related trade globally at over 68 billion (USD) with an expected growth to 5 trillion by the year 2050. According to the World Health Organization, traditional largely medicinal plants based systems continue to provide primary health care to over 80% of the world’s population. The World Bank in a study on world development has indicated that the gap between the haves and the have-nots may increase due to ownership of knowledge through Intellectual property Rights (IPRs). Patenting trends across the world shows that there is a spurt in R&D activity by other countries to exploit these vast traditional bio-resources for commercial gain leading to innovative product, processes and applications.

A sizable number of drugs are developed from plants. The majority of these involve the isolation of the active ingredient from the particular medicinal plant and its subsequent modification. A semi-synthetic analogue of such a compound could typically be a useful pharmaceutical product. Most of such drugs have been discovered with the aid of ethno- botanical knowledge of the traditional uses of the plant. The pharmaceutical company that makes such a drug also applies for some form of intellectual property protection, the most favored being the patent. If granted, the patent gives the company the right to prevent anyone else from manufacturing or selling the product. The company gets, in effect, a commercial monopoly. In addition, the source of the ethno-botanical knowledge is generally not mentioned. Thus both the credit for the product and the financial reward generally go to the company. The country from which the knowledge is obtained is simply treated as a source of raw material, whether of knowledge or of a biological resource.

The analysis of patenting activity in clove for example shows that there are about 594 patents relating to clove by countries such as USA, China and Japan with the overall thrust to make use of the properties of cloves or its extracts as ingredients in flavoring food and feed products, in medicine, dentifrice’s, surfactants and as an essence in cosmetics. However the resource rich countries such as India have not made any impact in this direction though there are still some gaps where no patents have been filed for example the use of clove in diabetes or tuberculosis and as a mulluscicidal or a nematidicidal. In contrast China has protected most of its traditional knowledge by granting patents.

Biotechnology and new patent laws have allowed companies to capitalize on even the smallest life forms. The E Merck pharmaceutical company has patented microbial samples from nine countries. The 'biopirates' are also on the lookout for profitable, patentable plants. In one remarkable example, several North American companies, including WR Grace, have been granted more than 30 US patents on the neem tree of India-- and not only on the tree, but also on the indigenous knowledge about its many uses.

In another act of biopiracy, two drugs derived from the rosy periwinkle -vincristine and vinblastine-earn $100 million annually for pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly. The plant is indigenous to the rainforest of Madagascar, but the country has received nothing in return – these are obvious examples where biopiracy does not bring royalties to developing nations but instead increase profits to multi-national drug companies who by patenting TK, not only monopolize the drug market but are also in a position to sue indigenous people for the use of their own traditional medicines!

India, consists of plenty of flora and fauna and 65 crore-acres of land which gets plenty of sunshine so biomass energy is generated in copious amounts. We have massive genetic resources. There are several battles we have won for example, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) against registering of turmeric patent in USA and the efforts CSIR scientists had to take against the US patent on Basmati rice.

Third world nations should form a strong base from which they can protect their national interests and biological resources. There are over 200 medicinal plants from our country which multinationals are trying to patent. India, with such a wide scientific base and cultural background should take the lead to stop biopiracy by multinational companies.

01 July 2009

economics of carbon

There is consensus that climate change is the single largest threat to global economy. Effective methods to tackle the growing effects of global warming are yet to be devised. However, there has been several measures to quantify carbon emission. Both the Kyoto Protocol and the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU-ETS) are based on the pollution trading model. By giving greenhouse gases a price, trading is also supposed to encourage businesses to invent new, lower-emitting technologies. One problem is that carbon trading encourages the industries most addicted to coal, oil and gas to delay shifting away from fossil fuels.

Critiques of the Carbon Economy
One of the oft-heard complaint is that they encourage ‘passing the buck’, rather than alleviating the situation. They have also been repeatedly critiqued for merely salving consciences; for privatizing the public or societal cost of carbon pollution; for, in the case of some projects, dispossessing ordinary people of their land and water. Global warming requires reorganization of society and technology so that fossil fuels can be left in the ground. It is a false economy to try to set up a market system that requires enormously complicated, centralized carbon accounting merely in order to save corporations a bit of money in attaining unambitious, near-term targets. Time and brainpower would be better spent in laying enduring foundations for an entirely new regime of energy use.

Carbon Trade Schemers
Carbon trading schemes are based on the ‘polluter pays’ principle. However, high-polluting industries and nations are being granted nearly as many free pollution rights - which they can then trade lucratively - as they need to cover their current emissions. Under the EU ETS, some of the worst greenhouse offenders have garnered hundreds of millions of pounds in windfall profits for pursuing business as usual, while ordinary citizens suffer higher electricity prices and developers of renewable energy go begging.

The Kyoto Protocol and the EU ETS are weakened further by loopholes allowing big polluters to buy cheap 'offset' credits from abroad to 'compensate' for any emissions not covered by free pollution permits. A British cement firm or oil company lacking enough permits to cover its emissions can make up the shortfall simply by buying credits from, say, a 'carbon-saving' wind farm in India, a scheme to destroy globe-warming HFC refrigerants in Korea, an energy efficiency programme in South Africa, or a project to burn landfill gas to generate electricity in Brazil.

The domestic inaction that this arrangement enables might be justified if it were part of a larger revolution in the way energy is used and produced worldwide. But it isn't. The foreign carbon projects being used to license industry's continued emissions at home are supplementing fossil fuel use; they are not replacing it. The institutions most active in setting up 'offset' projects - ranging from the World Bank to Tokyo Power - are precisely those most committed to burning up more and more coal, oil and gas. The logical endpoint of this approach is a landscape covered in the carcasses of wind farms, solar stations and biofuel plantations - all baking in a greenhouse atmosphere that can no longer support human civilization.

Many ordinary people in the South have more immediate concerns about carbon trading. The Durban Group for Climate Justice documented how carbon credits are being generated almost exclusively by local environmental offenders, while communities preserving local forests or defending their lands against oil exploitation or coal-fired power plants are being ignored. It is big polluters, after all, who tend to be in the best position to hire carbon consultants, liaise with officials and pay money to get projects registered with the UN carbon market.

In Brazil, locals are up in arms against a land-grabbing plantation and pig iron firm that tried to peddle credits on the ground that without the carbon money it would have to replace its charcoal fuel with mineral coal. In India, the notoriously polluting, water-guzzling sponge iron industry of Chhattisgarh was among the first to try to sell carbon credits for being 'green'. Worldwide, many communities interviewed had no idea that their local corporate bad citizens were getting extra cash from the carbon market - but were not happy to hear it.

The carbon market helps keep an oppressive fossil-centered industrial model going at a time when society should already be abandoning it. There are better ways of tackling climate change than by privatizing the earth's carbon-cycling capacity. Public investment; shifting subsidies away from fossil fuels toward renewables; conventional regulation; support for the work of communities already following or pioneering low-carbon ways of life - all are more direct ways of bringing about structural change.

The US wrote carbon trading into the Kyoto Protocol before abandoning the treaty to its fate. With the advent of Copenhagen, there is an increased need to reform the basis on which any future carbon schemes are based upon. The sclerotic market apparatus that came about after Kyoto does not serve the best interests of either South or North. The Northern bloc cannot continue polluting and expect the Southern bloc to pay – the impacts are disproportionate. A lot of time has been wasted that is not available to waste discussing a model that is essentially a failure. It had more than a decade to work and it didn’t, it is time for a change.