30 September 2009

putting a price on climate change adaptation

Even if global emissions of GHGs are drastically reduced in the coming years, the global annual average temperature will rise by 2°C above pre-industrial levels by 2050. This slightly warmer world will experience more intense rainfall and more frequent droughts, floods, heat-waves and other extreme weather events. The reduction of vulnerability of natural and human systems against actual and expected climate change effects is going to be a huge developmental process in the coming years. Climate change mitigation is no longer possible, our outlook needs to shift now towards climate change adaptation.

Most scientists believe that rise in temperature will exceed 2°C, more on the order of 4°C and this is predicted to increase the likelihood of irreversible and catastrophic impacts. This will include the extinction of half the world's species, inundation of 30% of coastal wetlands, collapse of entire ecosystems as well as increase in malnutrition and diseases.

Climate adaptation however, is expensive business. To shed some light on this, the World Bank initiated a study to estimate adaptation costs for developing countries in the lead up to COP15. The initial study report, finds that the cost of adapting to an approximately 2°C warmer world by 2050 would be in the range of $75 billion to $100 billion a year. This sum is of the same order of magnitude as the foreign aid that developed countries now give developing countries each year, but it is still a very low percentage of the wealth of countries as measured by their GDP. To put things in perspective, for example in India, climate change adaptation alone will cost the country 2-3.5% of GDP per year, which is almost half the economic growth we are seeing currently.

Whilst mitigation efforts at this point seems useless, the world cannot afford to neglect it altogether. Whilst adaptation only minimizes the impacts of climate change, it does not tackle the causes. Development is the most powerful form of adaption but this has to take a new direction. Technological exploration makes economies less reliant on climate-sensitive sectors like agriculture and it also boosts capacity to adapt by increasing incomes in infrastructure, health and education.

Development of the future has to be well planned and also sustainable with holistic approaches in place. Climate modelling ultimately is filled with uncertainties and therefore it is crucial to undertake further research, collect data and disseminate information so that if climate change impact turns out to be worse than anticipated, more countries can respond quickly and effectively. This requires global policy, laws and efforts to ensure rapid-action. Policies should be constantly revised and should be flexible enough to incorporate new knowledge as it emerges.

According to the report, countries should pursue "low-cost policies and investments on the basis of the best or median forecast of climate change at the country level. At the same time, countries should avoid making investments that will be highly vulnerable to adverse climate change outcomes". This report comes at an important time when the haves and the have-nots are battling over carbon numbers. Both sides of the argument are validated. However, the point being missed is that if carbon emissions are not reduced, we all will be the have-nots.

death of the small things

Photo: Akhila Vijayaraghavan ©

I had an interesting conversation with a friend the other day and we were talking about how the death of the small things is rather worrying. Of course people only pay attention to the death of the more noticeable creatures - the tigers, the lions etc but nobody really talks about the fact that there are no earthworms in garden soil anymore or the fact that the sparrows have disappeared.

The disappearance of the smaller life-forms is definitely a barometer on how serious environmental impacts are. The common sparrow ironically is not common anymore. Sparrows have disappeared from major cities world over due to temperature increase, excessive noise, air and light pollution. However, they are still found in places away from the cities. Earth worms have disappeared because soil quality has degraded due to excessive use of pesticides. Other small creatures like frogs, butterflies, grasshoppers etc are also disappearing along with wildflowers. I have a theory that this is connected to the rise in mosquitoes - logically it makes sense to me, but it is just a theory.

Elsewhere there have been reports of honey bees dying out in California affecting pollination of almond trees and dying hedgehogs in England which are set to completely disappear by 2025. The climatic changes have been subtle but drastic enough to affect the life-style and reproductive timing of these animals. Milder winters mean that animals do not hibernate as long as they have to emerging earlier than usual and getting trapped in extreme weather and perishing. Baby hedgehogs, baby squirrels, even baby grass snakes are being found in distress in many places. Toads and newts that should still be under a rock and bats which are normally still hibernating during winter in hollow trees and barns have all been found out and about during these months and there aren't enough insects around for them to survive on. Some baby birds like ducklings and blackbirds are also vulnerable to sudden cold spells.

The protection of the small creatures is something that can be encouraged. A bird-feeder will encourage birds to your garden, planting flowers will ensure butterflies. Using composted soil will see the return of earth-worms. Even our immense capacity for imagination finds something grotesque in meadows where wildflowers do not bloom, where sparrows do not chirp and where squirrels and hedgehogs do not exist. All creatures great or small have a place on the earth and a role to play and our carelessness should not nudge them out of their niche.

Earth laughs in flowers
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

28 September 2009

re-branding the slump

The economic recession has hit many companies badly and the ones that have survived are focusing their efforts on re-branding in order to attract more consumers. One of the key re-branding efforts revolve around corporate social responsibility. CSR is a form of corporate self-regulation integrated into the business model. A CSR policy would function as a built-in, self-regulating mechanism whereby businesses would monitor and ensure its adherence to law, ethical standards and international norms.

It is also a model whereby businesses would proactively promote public interest by encouraging community growth and development. CSR essentially is the deliberate inclusion of public interest into corporate decision-making regardless of legality and the honoring of the triple bottom line: people, planet and profit. Why is this important?

The private sector holds immense potential in alleviating some of the world's most dire problems simply because of the enormous funds available to their disposal. The impact of business decisions of MNCs have far reaching social, economic and environmental consequences not restricted to the countries of their operation. This is something that companies can use to their advantage and it is a powerful brand-building tool.

Recession automatically means that most companies will cut back on 'superfluous' operation costs and CSR is one of them. However, this might prove to be catastrophic to company image once economies recover. 67% of business in a recent survey believed that being trusted to deliver social and environmental policies is critical to business success. A report by OgilvyEarth, showed that the recession has done little to curb consumer demand for products with social and environmental credentials.

The recession therefore provides a unique opportunity for branding - although philanthropy and charity-based CSR activities are likely to take a hit, the ones that are sustainability-driven will make more headway and emerge. The financial crunch also means that companies will want to get the maximum branding potential, that offers them the best competitive advantage with low inputs.

CSR is also business model that brings together the civil sector and NGOs together into main-stream business encouraging greater divergence of ideas and solutions. Many companies now tie up with prominent NGOs in order to build their CSR profile. With 'green' being a key word with even customers these days, it is essential for companies to have a strong profile in this area both for brand-building and for economic sense.

CSR and sustainable development does indeed provide avenues for brand building. But it is a process that requires huge amounts of transparency on the company's part in order for it to be believable. It is possible to participate in sustainable business and include that aspect of CSR into annual reports and still be involved in the not-so-savory aspects of business. This has led critics to believe that it is essential that the process of CSR should also be regulated in a manner such that all aspects of business is taken into account.

CSR is in a nascent and largely unregulated stage. If it becomes main-stream and regulated, the heights to which the green business model can reach are immense. CSR could be the key that will change business as usual.

22 September 2009

india - stats

India is rapidly climbing the ladder as a country in severe eco-crisis. We may boast all we want about per capita carbon emissions being among the lowest in the world, but the national aggregate is among the top. This is another reason why population must be controlled within the country. Rapid urbanization and the growth of mega-cities is putting enormous pressure on natural resources. With 33% of the population of India living in cities, India's Urban National Policy is jarringly inadequate. 45% of the land is degraded and ground-water supplies are diminishing rapidly. Particulate air pollution is on the rise on cities hitting 110 million people causing public health damage costs in 2004 of about $3 billion.

India has overtaken Japan as the world's fourth-largest emitter of carbon with emissions one-quarter those of US and China. More than 60% of that comes from the energy sector. Forests soak up 11% of emissions and it has been indicated that the government is taking efforts to increase forest cover to combat climate change. This is also to ensure the protection of biodiversity however, 10% of plants and animals on the subcontinent are threatened with extinction. This includes species like the black-faced langur found in Nilgiris, Nilgiri Tahr and the lion-tailed macaque which are endemic to India.

India's carbon emissions are about 1.6 billion tons per year (2005) and are set to rise to 6.5 billion tons by 2030. This figure can be cut by 2.8 billion tons with improvements to infrastructure, agriculture and investment in renewable energy. In the lead up to the Copenhagen Conference in December, India has announced that it plans to tackle climate change with renewal energy and other cleantech advances but will not commit to binding emissions reductions. A recent report however, calculates that the cost of roughly halving carbon emissions growth by 2030 is $1.1 trillion which translates to about 2.3% of GDP which will be spent mostly on alternate energy.

The rich vs. poor is still the primary issue even to the lead up to COP15 with India and China arguing against emission cuts and Russia stating that will agree to emission targets only if the US does. This will be followed up on another post... so watch this space.

13 September 2009

fertilizing famine

One of the biggest threats to the future of Indian agriculture is not the failure of monsoon and other climate vagaries but its own government's agricultural policy of subsidizing fertilizers. Agriculture itself is an energy intensive process, fertilizer and pesticide manufacture even more so. Run-offs from fertilizer plants affect water supplies and leach into the soil to contaminate ground water.

Ever since chemical agriculture reared its ugly head during the time of the green revolution in the 1960s, India has embraced this model and we are beginning to see the consequences now. The consumption of synthetic fertilizers has increased from 0.07Mt in 1950-51 to 23.15Mt in the year 2008-2009. This initially contributed to the growth of food production but five decades later, indiscriminate use has degraded the natural resource base and is affecting the abundantly fertile soil this land is blessed with. Now, there is a gradual decline in food production and the industry is affected by diminishing returns and failing dividends in agriculture intensive areas.

Synthetic nitrogen fertilizers used in conventional farming generate nitrous oxide, a gas 300 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2. 1 tonne of oil, 7 tonnes of GHGs and 100 tonnes of H2O are involved in manufacturing 1 tonne of nitrogen fertilizer according to the Soil Association.

For 2009-2010, the budget allocation for fertilizer subsidies alone in India was close to 50,000 crores. The government's current policy does not take into account organic fertilizers or bio fertilizers. World over the propounded 'safe' limit of chemical fertilizer is between 60-80kg/ha whereas in India this number is as high as 500kg/ha in certain areas! The irrigated area, which accounts for 40% of the total agricultural area receives 60% fertiliser applied - this means 40% is being washed into water supplies. Soil degradation is the biggest threat to agricultural productivity and the use of synthetic fertilizers contribute directly to it.

India agriculture has shifted away from the traditional inter-cropping to chemically intensive monoculture system. Now the government is investing heavily in the advancements of GM technology in order to "feed the millions". This shift has already taught us many lessons with land becoming fallow and uncultivable in many areas due to essential nutrients in the soil being drained away. GM will follow this same pattern - this needless investment into methods that do not work must be culled. Organic cultivation and inter-cropping not only protects soil fertility but with proper management will produce enough to feed the millions without compromising on environmental quality.

Organic farming can only be supported if consumers support the industry. Every time you make the choice to eat organic, you are playing a role in shifting the balance towards a more sustainable form of agriculture and choosing not to consume harmful chemicals along with your food. If this does not convince you then I suggest you read stories of real-life farmers here and here.

10 September 2009


With less than a hundered days to go before Copenhagen in December where climate treaties will be negotiated, it is time for peope to get involved. Climate change is not an issue to be discussed in the ivory towers of policy makers, it is a peoples' issue which is what 350.org wants to highlight. 350.org is an international campaign dedicated to building a movement to unite the world around solutions to the climate crisis. Their mission is to inspire the world to rise to the challenge of the climate crisis—to create a new sense of urgency and of possibility for our planet.

350ppm is the level that scientists have identified as the safe upper limit for CO2 in our atmosphere. Currently we are at 387ppm. 350 is more than a number--it is a symbol of where we need to head as a planet. On 24th October, there are mass rallies and other events in every corner of the globe organized by ordinary people in collaboration with 350.org in order to tell the world leaders what the planet needs.

This is a peoples' movement at its best and something I'm really looking forward to. You can get involved by donating or starting an action of your own or joining one that is already happening. The website has a list of already registered actions happening in very country.

07 September 2009

tragedy of the commons

Photo Courtesy: www.fao.org

The tragedy of the commons is a phenomenon that was first written about by Garrett Hardin in 1968. In his article published in Science he describes a dilemma in which multiple individuals acting independently and solely and rationally consulting their own self-interest will ultimately destroy a shared limited resource even when it is clear that it is not in anyone's long term interest for this to happen.

Central to Hardin's article is an example, a hypothetical and simplified situation from medieval land tenure in Europe, of herders sharing a common parcel of land (the commons), on which they are each entitled to let their cows graze. In Hardin's example, it is in each herder's interest to put the next (and succeeding) cows he acquires onto the land, even if the carrying capacity of the commons is exceeded and it is damaged for all as a result. The herder receives all of the benefits from an additional cow, while the damage to the commons is shared by the entire group. If all herders make this individually rational economic decision, the commons will be destroyed to the detriment of all.

This concept that the 'commons' is available to everyone to use and abuse without regulation is the primary stumbling block towards a sustainable future. The abuse of the commons is being seen in many environmental scenarios like destruction of land resources, deforestation, air pollution, overfishing etc. Due to the lack of ownership, there is also a lack of conscience. Increase in population only increases the pressure on the commons.

I have previously argued that the definition of sustainability itself lends itself to an anti-growth model because it assumes that we are compromising the future generations' ability to enjoy the level of comfort that we do and because our current consumption patterns means that resources will run out. It does not address the issue of employing a new business model in order to overcome the tragedy of commons.

Businesses traditionally considered pollution and other abuse to the commons as an externality - a phenomenon that occurs during the normal course of doing business. Now however, there is a stark realisation that the environment can no longer be considered an externality. In fact any business model that still operates on this precept is ultimately an anti-growth model.

Business as usual needs a total reorganization in the way it operates. The age of big businesses and the off shoots of globalization like off-shore manufacturing is part of the redundant business model which still does not negate the tragedy of commons. It only makes the problem their problem but what it fails to recognize is that ultimately it is our problem.

A model of new-age business with sustainability at its core depends on social development and a bottom-up approach to knowledge transfer and horizontal management. This is done through the involvement of the community in community projects and allocation of the commons so that it is no under common jurisdiction but individual responsibility.

The backbone of every big business should be based on social development if it is to thrive. Social development is not just a localised 'small-time' tool. It can be as big or as small as one envisions. One of the biggest dairy companies in India, Amul uses this as a philosophy. Corporate social responsibility becomes an empty sentiment if it is not fully integrated into the daily workings of the business in question.

travellin' thru

Photo: Akhila Vijayaraghavan ©

Like the option of greening everything, travel too can be 'greened'. The biggest environmental impact of travel comes from the mode of travel and where you stay. This is why it is recommended that you take a train, bus or drive rather than fly. Avoid taking flights for short-haul trips and definitely try to travel long-haul during the night time only. Ensure that you use a e-ticket as that reduces paper wastage. Whatever your mode of travel, pack light as every kilo increases the amount of fuel expended and this is especially true with car travel. If you are renting a car on your travels, rent a hybrid and whatever car you use, ensure that the tyres are properly inflated and employ driving techniques that ensure low fuel wastage. Other options to get around include bicycling and taking walking tours - the slower pace of both ensures that you will not miss a lot and if you like taking photos on the way (like me) both modes will ensure that you don't miss the perfect shot.

Things you can do before you travel:
  • Ensure that your AC and heating are turned off
  • Turn water off at outside connection (to prevent flooding should a pipe break while you're gone)
  • Unplug appliances such as TVs, computers etc because they can draw or 'leak' as much as 40 watts per hour even when they're off
  • Decant lotions, shampoos etc into smaller bottles and reuse these bottles instead of buying travel-sized bottles everytime
  • Carry reusable water bottles with you and try not to buy bottled water
  • Ensure that you have the most eco-friendly accommodation which is why going camping, forest lodges etc are great options
  • Let your hotel know that you do not want replacement towels and sheets everyday
  • Turn off the electricity when you leave your room
  • Take your dirty laundry home to be washed
  • Pack your used soap to reuse or decant body wash into small bottles for use whilst away
  • Do not open complimentary bottles of amenities if you do not want them
For more eco tips look here. In order to ensure that travel becomes a greener experience, many hotels and hostels are going green not only as a USP but also because running a hotel is very energy intensive and employing green initiatives also includes a cost-saving benefit. Travelocity is a great website that gives you travel tips and a list of eco-friendly hotels. Treehugger also has a list of twelve great eco-hostels.

For your next holiday try something different - toss the beaten track and tread on the path less followed. If you have always enjoyed spa breaks and staying in five-star hotels, consider eco-holidays that bring you closer to nature. Think about going on an expedition or even trekking, scuba diving or river rafting. Ecotourism begins first with the choices you make. Wherever you go learn to respect natural surroundings and follow basic rules like not littering, harming local wildlife, making loud noises etc.

Holidays with my family have always left me feeling refreshed because we have always tried to explore the quieter vistas and get away from the city. As naturally inclined travellers rather than tourists, we prefer to stay in places that encourage ecotourism. From this I have learnt that holidays that refresh the mind and body need not cost the earth.

talkin' 'bout a revolution

Music is an integral element of revolution. Many songs are born out of times where there has been a struggle for political justice and social liberation. From Vande Mataram in India to Le Marseillaise in France to We Shall Overcome in America, songs of freedom hold a special place because they signify something worth fighting for. The 1960s were a turbulent time in recent history and probably marks the entry of environmentalism in the main-stream. It has now been 40 years since the Woodstock music festival which saw some of the best musicians of that time perform for a crowd nearly half a million strong, and many of the ideas, philosophies, and dreams that grew from those fields in Bethel, New York are still paving the way today. More than just a concert, the event became a stand against war, a peaceful revolution, and a cultural forum for ideas and positive global change--including the environmental movement.

That was a time filled with turmoil but yet drenched in optimism and faith that change will come. I'm innately too much of a realist to ever be a flower child for much too long, but the music of Joni Mitchell, Neil Young etc rate much higher on my playlist than Led Zeppelin and Rolling Stones ever will.

Apart from the music with social messages that came out from the sixties, there were also several other environmental warnings that triggered the movement. Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring which was published in 1962 which highlighted the hazardous effects of pesticide use served as the tipping point. Out of the same era also came James Lovelock's Gaia Hypothesis and Paul Ehrlich's book The Population Bomb. Other famous names of that era are E.O Wilson, Lester Brown, David Suzuki, Ralph Nader - all environmental pioneers, blowing the clarion for this fragile earth long before Al Gore, Raj Pachauri or any one else.

Scientific evidence of climate change was already being found back then which spurred on the social activism that coincided with the Vietnam War and exploded into the hippie-movement and culminated in Woodstock. The voices of Woodstock were strong, clear, optimistic, perhaps even idealistic but they believed with many of them still active in the environmental movement today. Does music have the power to change? Do we need another Woodstock to shake things up? Do we even believe so purely anymore? Does art for revolution's sake even exist?

Whether music is a tool of activism or a precursor to action is a question to be answered. Whether or not any form of music can change the world is perhaps out there for debate. What is certain though is that music has always inspired the people who actually do change the world.

Won't you help to sing these songs of freedom
'Cause all I ever have: redemption songs
- Bob Marley