28 February 2009

greening gadgetry

Heralding a social awakening about consumer choices, proper disposal methods of e-wastes and hazardous materials are the need of the hour. As electronic goods personify the ‘use and throw’ phenomenon, there is a direct link between consumer psyche and marketing of electronics. Even within the world of electronics, there are the good guys and the bad guys. There are manufacturers that are constantly pushing their energy ratings and EPEAT ratings beyond whatever is deemed necessary.

According to the EPEAT website it is a system to "help purchasers in the public and private sectors evaluate, compare and select desktop computers, notebooks and monitors based on their environmental attributes". It also "provides the opportunity for manufacturers to secure market recognition for efforts to reduce the environmental impact of its products"

This kind of rating system evaluates not just energy usage of the electronic item but also over-all environmental impact from manufacturing to disposal . Most of the electronic items are made up of plastic, various metals and dangerous compounds like mercury, beryllium, silicon etc when not disposed of properly leach into the soil and affect ground water. For example, cathode ray tubes (CRTs) in computers contain heavy metals, such as lead, barium and cadmium, which can be very harmful to health if they enter the water system. These materials can cause damage to human nervous and respiratory systems. Flame retardant plastics, used in electronics casings, can release particles that damage human endocrine functions. Apart from this electronics contain metals like aluminium which are energy intensive to mine but can recycled indefinitely.

Several cities in most countries advocate recycling of electronics and electrical equipment, find out if your city has a dedicated WEEE center to drop off your old gadgets. When you buy new gadgets look for an EPEAT rating apart from energy star ratings. Most reputable brands follow the EPEAT guidelines including Dell, Sony Ericsson, Nokia, HP, IBM, Toshiba etc. You can find this information online or on company websites. Additionally you can also check out Greenpeace's guide to green electronics.

Electronics go a long way in making our life easier but each year 250 million computers are disposed in the US alone. If you have old cellphones lying around, send them to be recycled - you are simply hoarding materials than can be reused. In some instances, your mobile phone company will recycle our old phone for free. Take advantage of exchange offers when changing your phone. You can also donate your phone to a worthy cause. Similarly, you can donate your old computer to similar causes. There are currently several computers and laptops on the market where the plastic chassis is replaced by wood or bamboo. Use the gadgets you have for as long as you can. Reduce 'vampire power' which is is the energy used by devices when they're plugged in but not turned on. Prevent wasted energy first by unplugging any devices not in use or that are fully charged. Additionally use rechargeable batteries for your electronic goods which further reduces landfill wastes.

Wastage of resources by using electronics can be prevented with a little care. Thoughts I leave you with - 20-40: Number of gadgets the average user of electronics keeps on stand by, that suck up energy even when turned off. Televisions, computers, electric toothbrushes, phones, radios are more all use up energy and money when they aren’t even in use. 1%: The total percent of carbon dioxide emissions emitted each year from devices left on stand by.

go planet!

If you grew up in the 90s then Captain Planet probably featured into your TV-time. He was the superhero bringing awareness to environmental issues much before Al Gore. The cartoon itself needs no introduction and is a form of edutainment, which advocates the UN as an organization, and the concepts of globalism, multiculturalism and environmentalism generally.

Gaia, the spirit of the Earth, is awakened from a long sleep by human activity threatening ecosystems. Realizing that the damage is extensive, she sends five magic rings, each with the power to control an element of nature one controlling an extra element - heart, to five chosen youths across the globe.

These five are dubbed the Planeteers given the task of defending the Earth in the case of the greatest of disasters and making effort to keep others from happening. Gaia who is based in Hope Island, uses her 'Planet Vision' to discover where the most devastating destruction is occurring and sends the Planeteers to help solve the problem. The Planeteers use transportation based on solar power in order to avoid causing pollution themselves.

In situations that the Planeteers cannot resolve alone, they can combine their powers to summon Captain Planet, a magical entity who possesses all of their powers magnified. This symbolizes the premise that the combined efforts of a team are stronger than its individual parts. He is able to rearrange his molecular structure to transform himself into the various powers and elements of nature. Captain Planet's outfit does not represent a specific culture and is made up of elements of the Earth that are integral to his composition. He has superhuman powers and seems to gain more proportionate to whatever the situation requires. Nevertheless, he is weakened by pollutants which sap his strength.

Despite his vulnerability to pollution, Captain Planet is a formidable and valiant hero. Once his work is done, Captain Planet returns to the Earth, restoring the Planeteers' powers. The bad guys were of course the polluters and even they were realistically exaggerated. Of course they were all after materialistic gains, with no regard to the ecosystem or the damage inflicted on it.

Created by Ted Turner, the cartoon always ended with a public service message to promote the issues tackled within the show itself. No matter how kitschy the show itself was, it was a great way to educate young children about environmental issues when the problems first began to rear their ugly heads. As for me, an innate geek even way back then: I loved the show, its message and the way it effectively broke down trivialities such as race, colour and creed to present a united front towards a problem that is much bigger than all of us. The show had a target audience who are now the young people of today in positions to actually do something about the various issues. Captain Planet was the übercool eco-warrior and suddenly it was awesome to be green. As far as fads go, this one was here to stay.

Captain Planet and the Planeteers take you on adventures - part science, part action, but always rooted in fact. Every episode reveals some aspect of the physical effect of environmental destruction and ends with the same message: that every individual must respect the planet and preserve its resources if we are to ensure our survival. So really, the power is yours!

rainforests of the ocean

I had the opportunity to go to Lakshadweep which are a group of islands off the west coast of India in September 2008. The entire archipelago is built on dead coral beds giving the islands white sandy beaches and crystalline blue-green waters. It was visually stunning and definitely one of the most beautiful places I've been to.

It is home to some of the most stunning coral formations as well as sea-turtles, reef sharks, rays etc. Its delicate reef ecosystem is a reminder of how precious our natural biodiversity is. Almost all of the corals surrounding the islands were destroyed by the El Niño phenomenon but now show signs of recovery. To truly enjoy the splendor of the reefs snorkeling or scuba diving is a must. It immediately puts into perspective your smallness in the grand scheme of things. 2008 was the year of the coral reef - coral reefs all over the world are endangered as a result of human activity. Corals are very sensitive to temperature, salinity and acidity - all of which are being affected by global warming. Humans are effectively changing the balance of the last great frontier - the ocean systems.

Coral reefs support a plethora of species and are a hot-spot for biodiversity; much like the rainforests. They support 25% of all marine life and almost every marine creature spends part of its life cycle in coral reefs along with many species of fish which are of commercial importance. Apart from this, it buffers the shoreline from wave action. Places with healthy coral reefs and mangrove forests were found to be less damaged after the 2004 tsunami.

Threats to reefs apart from global warming include tourism, bottom trawling, blast mining of coral and pollution. Collapse of the reefs means decline of fish stocks, loss of biodiversity and subsequent loss of economy. 20% of the world's coral reefs have been effectively destroyed and show no immediate prospects of recovery. Scientists seem to be pessimistic about the future, with some reefs expected to vanish by 2020.

Coral reefs need to be protected to ensure future posterity. The way to do this is to reassess the way we live. Think about what you use as it eventually ends up in the ocean regardless of how near or far you are from the coast.

25 February 2009

ban the bag

There is one simple action we can all take that will have an enormous impact on the health of our planet. The next time you shop, carry your own bag. If everyone did this, one of the most lethal polluters created by man would be removed from circulation.

Consider the following facts:
  • Plastic bags are made of polyethylene which is a petroleum product
  • Production contributes to air pollution and energy consumption
  • Four to five trillion plastic bags are manufactured each year
  • In Delhi alone, around 10 million plastic bags are used every day
  • 1% of the plastic bags are recycled
  • It takes 1000 years for polyethylene bags to break down and this leaches toxic substances that enter the food chain
  • Burning of plastic bags, a common practice in Indian rubbish heaps releases dioxins which causes cancer
  • Approximately 1 billion seabirds and mammals die per year by ingesting plastic bags
  • Plastic bags are often mistaken as food by marine mammals and 100,000 marine mammals die a painful death as the plastic wraps around their intestines or they choke to death
  • Plastic bag choke landfills
  • Plastic bags are carried by the wind into forests, ponds, rivers, and lakes
  • There are alternatives to plastic bags

Say no to plastic bags:
  • Reuse plastic shopping bags and wraps
  • Use wax paper instead of polyethylene products
  • Utilize reusable shopping bags made of cloth or hemp
  • Recycle your plastic shopping bags
  • If you forget your reusable shopping bag, opt for paper
  • Minimize your garbage output by composting and recycling
  • Tell others about the harmful impact of plastic bag usage
  • If you are only buying one or two items don't ask for a bag
  • Tell your check-out person at the store in advance that you do not want a bag
It might take a little planning and a little more time to say no to plastic bags, but by putting the planet ahead of inconvenience, each and everyone of us can make a difference. More power to you!

are we going the same way as the dinosaurs?

As long ago as 1993, Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson estimated that Earth is currently losing around 30,000 species per year — which breaks down to the even more daunting statistic of 3 species per hour. This has led many biologists to believe that the current biodiversity crisis is leading into 'the Sixth Extinction' which is more imminent than previously thought.

The fifth major extinction occurred at the end of the Cretaceous period which wiped-out the terrestrial dinosaurs and marine species as seen from fossil records of this period. It is believed that this event was caused by collisions between the Earth and extraterrestrial bodies. There is also the theory of a volcanic event that produced the Deccan traps of India as part of the chain of physical events that disrupted ecosystems so severely that many species succumbed to extinction.

The sixth extinction however, is different from anything that has previously occurred because for most part it is human-induced. There is little doubt that humans are the direct cause of ecosystem stress and species destruction in the modern world through their activities.

The first phase of the sixth extinction began shortly after Homo sapiens evolved and migrated out of in Africa. Humans reached the middle east 90,000 years ago. They were in Europe starting around 40,000 years ago. Neanderthals, who had long lived in Europe, survived our arrival for less than 10,000 years, and then abruptly disappeared. So modern humans have a long history of destroying native species wherever they migrate and this can be traced to even pre-historic times with the help of fossil records.

The second phase of the sixth extinction began around 10,000 years with the invention of agriculture. Agriculture represents the single most profound ecological change in the entire 3.5 billion-year history of life. Once agriculture became main-stream, humans could manipulate other species for their use. This also meant a departure from the 'hunter-gatherer' stage of history which means the species could overpopulate. Around this time it is believed that there were about 1 billion people populating the Earth. Currently, there are 6 billion people, by 2020, there could be 8 billion people. There is an upper limit to the carrying capacity of humans on earth, that number is usually estimated at between 13-15 billion.

The ecosystems of today's world has been plunged into chaos. There isn't a single face of the planet untouched by the human hand. Conservation measures, sustainable development, and ultimately, stabilization of human population numbers and consumption patterns seem to offer some hope that the Sixth Extinction will not be as drastic as some of the previous extinction events.

Life is incredibly resilient and it has always recovered but only when environmental stress has dissipated or reduced. In the case of the Sixth Extinction, the cause is ourselves. So this we have a choice: to continue on the path to our own extinction or modify our behaviour. Behaviour modification is incredibly challenging but in order for Life to rebound, it is now supremely essential.

24 February 2009

DNA - junk or secret code?

I wrote this way back in 2003 which was the 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA - it hasn't had the chance of being read yet. Deviating from my usual enviro-stuff, I'm going back to the place where everything really started for me.

It all started on that day which will go down in history. Two virtually unknown scientists James Watson and Francis Crick announced in the Eagle Pub in Cambridge, England that they had discovered 'the secret of life'. On April 25, 1953, it was announced to the world in a one-paged letter to Nature. It started with probably the most famous understatement in the history of science: “We wish to suggest a structure for the salt deoxyribose nucleic acid (DNA). This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest”.

The double helix has produced a lot more than ‘considerable interest’. It has shaped a whole new branch of science, a branch that has developed biology into something exciting, creative and alive. Possibilities herewith thought impossible, which remained mere speculations are now staring at our face with remarkable clarity. Along with all this of course, it has raised ethical debates and discussions and a furor which has never before been seen in biology. The discovery of DNA heralded a new era, the dawn of Genetic Science. Watson and Crick obviously did not realise the impact it would make when they published their findings in such stark modesty.

DNA is the carrier of the genetic code and thus the key molecule in hereditary, developmental biology and evolution. It is twisted into little pieces and packed into the nucleus of each cell. The blueprints for making proteins are stretches of DNA called genes. The instructions are spelled out in four-letter codes: A, T, G and C. In order to replicate, DNA which is a double helix, unzips along its length and unravels the two half-ladders that are reverse images of each other. Then each half rebuilds itself from components stored in the cells. Because As always bond with Ts and Gs always bond with Cs, the finished copies are identical. This amazing process occurs almost continuously through out lives, replacing worn out cells and producing new ones. DNA also has the ability to ‘proof-read’ this process and corrects any mistakes in pairing as it goes along.

In 1990, the Human Genome Project was officially launched. In the midst of that, Dolly, the first cloned mammal made her appearance in 1997. In 2000, Venter and Francis Collins announced together that they have sequenced the human genome. "We are learning the language in which God created life," said President Clinton in a conference soon after.

The 3.1 billion units of genetic information stored in our chromosomes are the building blocks of life itself. Although the President’s words were spot on, they had a different ring to many biologists. Majority of them believed it is natural selection – not God – that created the human genome, over billion years of evolution.

Although biologists have finished sequencing genes, they do not understand most of it. Why? Think of it this way. Suppose you found an ancient wall covered with strange marks. Some seem to be words in an unknown language, while others are simply random scratchings or gibberish. How do you distinguish the two? This is how modern evolutionary biologists view the information in our genome. In their view, the ‘gibberish’ is simply ‘junk DNA’ -- functionless, meaningless scraps and leftovers, which we have inherited from our animal ancestors. As they see it, only two forces could explain the origin of our genome: natural laws and blind chance, which equate to the process of natural selection. Therefore, if there is gibberish, you just dismiss it. After all, the author’s only goal was survival.

However, this is the easy way out. What if natural selection is incapable of creating such information? Even the most ardent Darwinian biologists agree that our genome contains tens of thousands of meaningful sequences, inspite of all the junk. What if the junk is not junk at all? What if it is a secret code we are yet to decipher? As Phillip Johnson argues in his book, ‘The Wedge of Truth’, "meaningful information-bearing sequences require some third force that works against both repetitive order on the one hand and chaotic chance on the other." And that, he says, would be a designing mind.

If God, not natural selection, designed the human DNA, maybe the so-called ‘junk DNA’ may have important functions. It is just written in a language beyond our present means of understanding. Whether we will eventually figure it out or whether it will remain a mystery forever, depends on divine will. The view that our genome is not just junk, but an intricate code we have yet to understand, holds vast promise and exciting possibilities. It is something the principles of natural selection can never offer.

Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind
- Einstein

rebirth of the primordial soup?

One of the most devastating effects of global warming is how it affects the oceans and seas of the world. In order to understand how climate change affects the oceans, it is essential to know how oceans affect global weather.

Oceans dominate the movement of water, supplying most of the water vapour in the atmosphere by evaporation. Of this, 91% is returned to the oceans as precipitation, the remainder is transported and precipitated over landmasses. Runoff and groundwater from land flow back to the oceans.

The oceans and the atmosphere are tightly linked, and together form the most dynamic component of the earth’s climate system. Oceans store heat. When the earth’s surface cools or is heated up by the sun, the temperature change is greater and faster over land than over the oceans.

Winds and currents are constantly moving the ocean’s waters. The Gulf Stream Drift, for example, is powered by cold, dense, salt-laden water sinking off the north polar coastal regions and moving south in the depths, pushing the surface warm water from the tropical and subtropical Atlantic (including some from the Gulf of Mexico) up north to bathe the shores of Western Europe, producing a climate that is surprisingly mild for that latitude.

Global warming and melting of the polar ice-caps freshens the surface water, reducing its density and preventing it from sinking. As a result, the Gulf Stream slows down, or may even reverse, bringing severe winters to northern Europe while the rest of the earth heats up.

All over the world ocean waters are warming as a result of global warming putting stress on marine ecosystems and sea life, already under siege from pollution, overfishing and habitat destruction. Warmer oceans also mean that ice caps are going to be melting faster, the rising sea-level will put underlying coastal areas at risk of being submerged. Sea levels are predicted to rise 7 to 23 inches by the end of the century, plus 4 to 8 inches if recent melting in Greenland and Antarctica continues. Many scientists consider these conservative estimates.

Apart from this there is going to be a direct influence on global weather patterns with increase in hurricanes and typhoons. We have already seen evidence of this. Additionally, winters in northern Europe and Scandinavia have grown wetter, while those in southern Europe and the Middle East have become dryer. European farmers have encountered an earlier and longer growing season. The habitats and life cycles of many marine and terrestrial species have changed. There have been changes to the monsoon in India and the Pacific Southwest as well.

Food for thought: The planet's weather not only supports its varied species of life, it also supports global economy. The biggest economic sectors directly affected by climate change are agriculture and the fishing industry. The warming up of our oceans is a bigger threat to human survival than anything else we currently face. A continued increase in ocean temperatures will see the top predator species of the food chain extinct with oceans reverting back to the primordial soup stage of early creation.

environmental management systems

An environmental management system (EMS) like all management systems involves planning, executing, checking and acting. Within an EMS, there are five steps to consider which are:
- establishing an environmental policy
- planning and preparation
- implementation and operation
- checking and corrective action
- management review

Sustainable development, according to the Stern Review brings with it adaptation and an ‘adaptation policy is crucial for dealing with the unavoidable impacts of climate change’. How we deal with adaptation or essentially change is dependent upon the management system used.

Under the adaptation policy, local benefits will be realized without long lead times. According to the review, adaptation brings with it ‘overall development, better disaster management and emergency responses’. The following example I use to demonstrate an effective EMS demonstrates diversification, flexibility and human capital.

An EMS would take into consideration all the five points as mentioned above. Using the example of the devastating effects of the December 2004 tsunami, I intend to demonstrate how an EMS can result in the adaptation policy mentioned in the Stern Review. In the aftermath of the tsunami in 2004, the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System (IOTWS) was set up.

The tsunami left 230,000 people dead or missing, irreparable damage to structures and collapse of whole industries in the countries affected. The most severely affected countries were Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Apart from loss of lives, biodiversity in the surrounding areas was affected, most notably, coral reefs and mangrove forests. It has been estimated that building up infrastructure in these countries will take about five years, up to a decade. Many analysts claimed that the disaster would have been mitigated if there had been an effective warning system in place, citing the well established Hawaii based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center which operates in the Pacific Ocean.

As a result of this, it was decided in a United Nations conference held in Kobe, Japan in 2005 that a TWS would be set up in the Indian Ocean to serve as a warning system. Preparations for the TWS started in early 2005 and the TWS was activated in 2006.

The TWS consisted of seismic gauges that detected earthquakes and also sea-based instruments like pressure recorders in the deep ocean and tide gauges monitoring sea-level at the coast. The Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunami (DART) system uses buoys and sensors stationed far out to sea. The advantage of the DART system is that it detects a tsunami far out in the sea and therefore gives enough warning time for evacuation purposes and emergency responses.

Germany worked on a joint project with Indonesia to put in place 10 of these buoys, the first two of which were installed in November 2005. Until the Indian Ocean system has been fully developed, centers in Japan and Hawaii are forwarding alerts to countries in the region. There are 70 Global Sea Level Observing System (GLOSS) stations along the Indian Ocean and before the tsunami they were used to measure the sea level for long-term climate change studies, and their data was transmitted only periodically. Now they are being upgraded to send real-time data to the newly set up tsunami centers.

Koichiro Matsuura, director-general of the UN's scientific and cultural organization, said the nations involved should be "justly proud of having done all this and much more". There are 26 national tsunami information centers receiving information from 25 new seismographic stations. There are also three deep-ocean sensors to detect and report tsunamis. He said the system would suffer if there was no coordination between the different nations. "The open and free exchange of data and the full interoperability of national systems is absolutely crucial for success," he said.

The TWS demonstrates adequately that an adaptation policy is the extension of a good development practice. In this particular example, the TWS contributes effectively towards overall development, better disaster management and emergency responses. The IOTWS diversifies from the TWS set up in the Pacific Ocean. There were interim measures in place before it was fully set up and this demonstrated the flexibility of the system. The system relies heavily on coordination between nations and the people involved.

Management systems are set up after careful consideration and a need-to-have basis. The IOTWS should have been anticipated, considering the fact that the area is high in seismic activity. The people living in the coastal areas received no warning before the tsunami struck resulting in the devastating effects and loss of life. Furthermore, destruction of mangrove forests around the coastal areas is said to have amplified the impacts of the tsunami, which stresses that conservation of local biodiversity is important. Research has shown mangroves are able to absorb between 70-90% of the energy from a normal wave. Another effective barrier is the coral reefs around the coastal line, healthy reefs recovered faster than reefs which were previously destroyed thus supporting local fishing industries.

In this situation, for a disaster-management system to be effective, apart from monitoring and the initial set-up, it has to be constantly upgraded to beat off new threats. The local government and people have to be educated on the system and the need for conservation has to be stressed.

An effective management system should take into account preservation of biodiversity, local sustainable industries and economy. An EMS needs to be set up in a way that it benefits the habitants of a community, taking feedback from them and research organizations. Conservation laws alone are not enough, enforcing them is equally important – the same is true with a viable EMS.

GHGs, externalities and economic growth

The Stern review states that, "the benefits of strong, early action will considerably outweigh the costs" in respect to the global problem of climate change. Human activity over the next few decades will severely impact the socio-economic structure of the world. If mitigating measures are not put into effect within the next decade, the cost estimated for tackling climate change will reach horrendous propositions. Sir Nicholas Stern has said that, "climate change is going to be the world’s biggest market failure".

One of the biggest problems in the 21st century is poverty, especially in the third world nations. As a direct consequence of climate change, the poorer countries will be affected disproportionately in comparison to the richer world. Developing countries are heavily dependent on agriculture; the primary sector is the most climate-sensitive of all economic sectors. There has already been a wide-spread impact of agricultural productivity in many countries due to climate change and this is only expected to worsen if correction measures are not put into place. As these countries do not have enough resources, adaptation to climate change is going to be very difficult as they are particularly vulnerable.

Other impacts of climate change include:
  • The displacement of a large proportion of people living in low lying areas like Bangladesh and the Netherlands due to rising sea levels.
  • Migration of tropical diseases like malaria and Dengue fever from the tropics to the temperate zones
  • In countries like Scandinavia, temperature rise will affect infrastructure, local health and biodiversity
  • Wide spread water scarcity
  • Increased cost of damages by storms, hurricanes, forest fires, droughts etc. Hurricane Katrina is a good recent example
  • Heat waves in Europe, like the one in 2003 which cost the economy $15 billion will become commonplace in the middle of the century
  • Developed economies could affect financial markets through higher and more volatile costs of insurances for storm damages etc.
  • Apart from all these, the loss of human lives through enhanced natural disasters like tsunamis, heat waves, hurricanes and drought will have a hugely negative impact on global economy
Greenhouse gas emissions are a negative externality and are therefore viewed as a social cost. Externality is a social cost or benefit resulting which arises unintentionally during the production process; this is the source of difficulty in dealing with it. In other words, as far as society at large is concerned, less of the pollutant good should be produced. However, the unintentional nature of its existence puts no moral obligation on the polluter to reduce production. Therefore, governments form policies in order to force producers to consider the ramifications of their production to society as an integral part of their costs. In other words, to 'internalise' the externality.

There are several policy measures to mitigate or control this particular externality. The oldest form of policy has been an extreme one that is unlikely to occur again due to the subtler form of current pollutants. This is ‘blanket banning’, which has been most successfully implemented by the Montreal Protocol of 1987, targeting the obsolescence of substances that deplete the ozone layer. It is predicted that the atmosphere will be completely free of Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other halogenated hydrocarbons in 2030. Now, according to the Stern review, the three main policy tools for mitigation are: carbon pricing, technology policy and the removal of barriers of behavioural policy; all three are equally important.

Carbon pricing and emissions trading:
Carbon pricing can be achieved by putting a price on it through trade or taxation and also by regulation. National governments decide on the maximum pollution abatement and distribute it equally in the form of tradable pollution permits, being conscious of the weighting difference to be granted between heavy and light producers, i.e.: they set a national production quota. Then they auction these permits to corresponding producers, while encouraging those that actually produce under the quota to make a profit by selling their 'pollution rights' to other producers. This is a significant incentive for industries to follow this measure and improve production, as the successful firms will have great monopoly power in setting a price for the extra pollution they have managed to reduce.

Furthermore, governments may seek to additionally or alternatively tax output on the grounds of pollution. This is a more direct measure, as it immediately forces the firm to consider the social cost in its balance flow.

Hence, under carbon pricing, industries will be forced to seek low-carbon alternatives to production to maintain current output levels and, thus, keep their individual market shares. The Kyoto Protocol of 1997 is a good example of the ‘cap and trade’ method of emissions trading.

Policies have an important impact on public finances. Policies depend on the countries’ national circumstances. As said, some countries choose either taxation or trade, while most use a mix of both. The EU-SDS is a good example of the European effort to cut emissions. The strategy’s basic aim is to follow the Kyoto target and reduce emissions roughly by 8% by 2008. Therefore, to tackle this, the strategy focuses on clean energy consumption by launching first the European Climate Change Program (ECCP), which handled indirect disincentives for excess energy use. Specifically, the measures taken by this initiative include imposing taxation on the use of energy products and enforcing energy quotas for heavy production units, such as factories and large corporation buildings.

Developing technologies:
Technology policy covers the full spectrum from research and development to demonstration and deployment. Particular examples of interest lie in the aforementioned EU-SDS. These are: the development of bio-fuels and alternative energy resources, such as solar, wind and even nuclear energy; greater independence of agencies policing national waste and litter regulations to promote eco-tourism and eco-trade; the amelioration of models and applications used in environmental cost-benefit analysis.

The EU strategy provides incentives to invest in new technologies through already existing carbon pricing policies and additional subsidies. Thus, they contribute to the Stern review’s prediction that "markets for low-carbon energy products are likely to be worth at least $500bn per year by 2050, and perhaps much more".

Removal of barriers of behavioural change:
The foremost important course of action to achieve the training and re-training of economists into the 21st century perception of 'green economics', not as an awkward hybrid of two disparate topics of analysis, but rather a logical and necessary next step to a continuously growing social science.

Unfortunately, the faults in the above policy measures are still great. Direct carbon pricing policies, such as taxation and trade, fail to correct the externality to any significant degree. Taxation is an uncertain measure, as the appropriate amount of tax on output is difficult and costly to determine. Emissions trading schemes are rendered unimportant as the chief incentive of producers is to exceed their quotas in the short run; this may go undetected very easily due to a current lack of resources in setting up monitoring mechanisms.

In addition, the strategy’s lack of clarity in defining rates of return and benefits for producers make the latter skeptical and, ultimately, unwilling to undergo any such alteration. Moreover, in terms of developing technologies, many low-carbon technologies are still expensive in comparison to fossil fuel alternatives. Technology for carbon capture and storage is only just being developed and still has not reached the full spectrum of its uses.

The only way out from this quagmire of doubt, uncertainty and indecisiveness is to fix our eyes firmly on the goal for inter-generational equity and push through.

sustainability and the 'bottom line'

The Brundtland report defines sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. 20th century economics has seen an emphasis on economic growth i.e., increases in GDP and consumption levels, which has brought us to the present situation. The concept of sustainability ushers the 21st century in a more development-orientated model i.e., keeping consumption constant over an infinite amount of time through improving the quality and efficiency of the production process across the world.

All industry ultimately depends on natural resources for their operational needs. The growth model may have improved living standards for few but at rates exceeding those of natural resource regeneration. Climate change is an effect of this model and could cost the world 1-2% of its economic output per annum; it may not seem to be a significant portion of GDP except that, most industrial economies grow at a rate of 2.5% per annum. Hence, given that this estimate is even approximately correct, climate change comes close to stopping economic activity.

The ‘bottom line’ for any company is to maintain market share, responsibility to its stakeholders and to make a profit. In terms of climate change, companies have a responsibility to be aware of public opinions in order to maintain or improve upon their market share. To ignore environmental issues or not pick up on public sympathies, companies can lose customer trust and this affects the bottom line. They may have to run a costly advertising campaign to restore consumer confidence and avoid losing market share which may have knock-on effects on share prices. A good example of this would be the Brent-Spar oil rig fiasco which cost Shell between Β£60M and Β£100M, when loss of sales were considered.

Environmental issues can work for the company to regain market-share, re-launch itself in a new sector like carbon-reducing goods and opportunities for expansion into sustainable development. An example of this would be Scottish Power which was a traditional company generating energy from coal and hydro-power. However in 2006 they were granted permission to build Europe's largest on-shore wind farm. The 322 MW/140 turbine site will cost an estimated B£300m. This is already showing an increase in their share prices and the company is slowing regaining its flagging market-share.

As with any newly developing economic sector, careful investment, studying market trends, etc., is needed. Energy is one of the biggest commodities in the world today and sustainable forms of energy have huge economic pay-offs. Suzlon is the world's largest, fully-integrated wind power company. In terms of market share, the company is the largest wind turbine manufacturer in Asia. As a relatively new company, it has proved that careful prediction of future trends and investments can reap rich rewards within the sustainable energy sector.

The main challenges associated with sustainable development are the fundamental reforms needed to make this a wide-spread method of production. From factory equipment upgrades to a radical change of global production standards, the 21st century faces heavy costs and adaptation time lags to forge sustainable economies. Globalization, indeed, in itself proposes the birth of eco-trade. It is perhaps one of the earlier manifestations of this change.

Another challenge is the persistent uncertainty surrounding global ecosystems. These are complex and interactive to a degree that we are only just starting to understand. Environmental economics, at its present embryonic stage, has only glimpsed at the causal chains that brings environmental effect about. Investing in research and development for betterment of the technologies available should be of prime importance for big companies and developed governments world wide. Careful investment in existing technologies and promotion of existing sustainable technologies should be encouraged as well.

Finally, conceptual changes in biological and economic evaluation standards for environmental effects have to be incurred. Unless we find new methods of measuring pollution, we cannot impose equivalent controlling measures. Since aspects of pollution show huge variability in its types and forms, in varying densities between different places even within the same country, an overall expansion of current data-gathering models is needed. This can be achieved by honing environmental sciences to produce a larger and more holistic view of the global ecosystem, while integrating the economic science in the appraisal of such complex dynamics.


The onset of rise in food prices which is projected to get worse puts GM food squarely back in the spot-light. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be defined as organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally. Genetic engineering allows selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another, also between non-related species.

GM foods are developed – and marketed – because there is some perceived advantage either to the producer or consumer of these foods. This is meant to translate into a product with a lower price, greater benefit (in terms of durability or nutritional value) or both. Initially GM seed developers wanted their products to be accepted by producers so have concentrated on innovations that farmers (and the food industry more generally) would appreciate. The GM crops currently on the market are mainly aimed at an increased level of crop protection through the introduction of resistance against plant diseases caused by insects or viruses or through increased tolerance towards herbicides.

All of this sounds much like magic, you take a gene put it into another plant and hey presto! the plant is resistant to diseases which reduces use of pesticides. On the flip side, essentially what the technology does is introduce foreign genetic material into a natural environment.

What's so bad about that you might ask - nothing much, except that genes move around a lot and one of the things they are adept at doing is mutation. So this brings about the question of human health - how does consuming GM food affect human health? The three main issues debated are tendencies to provoke allergic reaction, gene transfer and outcrossing. It has been shown that people living near GM fields ave developed skin rashes and other ailments. As for gene transfer which frankly, worries me more - gene transfer from GM foods to cells of the body or to bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract can occur. This would be particularly relevant if antibiotic resistance genes, used in creating GMOs, were to be transferred. Additionally transfer of genes to other soil microbes is also a possibility. The movement of genes from GM plants into conventional crops or related species in the wild is outcrossing, as well as the mixing of crops derived from conventional seeds with those grown using GM crops, may have an indirect effect on food safety and security.

I'm not even going to get into the environmental hazards of GMO but for the record one of the things it does do is kill Monarch butterfly larvae. So why has such a relatively untested technology deemed safe after field trials that have lasted less than 10years? The simple reason is that GM represents big bucks to seed companies who can monopolize the agri-industry by touting GM as the new miracle food. These companies are based in the US and by clever marketing strategy have fooled poor farmers into thinking that this super-seed is better.

The US has embraced GM for the last 30 years and about 80% of soya and maize products consumed is now GM. The EU continues to oppose GM and India is slowly opening out into the new technology. India of course is under pressure to feed its growing population in the midst of failing monsoons. Inspite of this, let us be clear that there is no short-fall of food production (yet) but the country lacks proper distribution channels. Instead of spending on GM research; it would make more economical sense to invest in establishing better distribution channels, encourage the small farmers and protect existing agricultural land to ensure future food security.

As far as India and other developing nations are concerned, GM is absolutely the wrong way to go. One of the pit-falls that the big seed honchos fail to mention is that GM technology only works on large scale and India's agricultural backbone are the small farmers. In this scenario, small-scale permaculture or organic farming is the way to go which has been proved to produce more yield per acre as opposed to chemical farming.

Most worryingly India has no clear rules and regulations in place to check in-coming GM contamination by form of food imports nor does it have in place stringent methods of testing and approval of GM food products. The Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU) in collaboration with Monsanto is now moving towards introducing GM Brinjal with the Bt gene transcribed to increase pest resistance. Think about this - with food grains, there is a processing stage that diminishes the effect of the toxin but with a vegetable, it is consumed with absolutely no processing. All I'm saying is that people have a right to know what they eat and where their food comes from. With current, very ambiguous laws in place, this information isn't going to reach the consumer. If Bt Brinjal is introduced in the market, we will not be able to tell the difference as India does not package and label fresh produce. As a result we will lose a basic consumer right of knowing what is in our product before we buy it.

welcome to the church of the holy cabbage. lettuce pray

Recently I have been doing a lot of research on food production as this is one of ways in which the environment is impacted. Not only is food growing an energy intensive process as it is largely dependent on fossil fuel resources, there are several steps in the production process that uses energy. Transportation of food not only domestically but also internationally contributes towards a large part of what I like to call 'foobon' footprint which is specifically carbon footprint of food. Additionally consuming packaged, frozen, processed food contributes towards this not only during the process itself but also the disposal of waste material created in the process.

The obesity epidemic we are currently seeing even in the developing world is tied into the way we view and consume food. This in turn is tied into the way we can change our eating habits in order to reduce individual foobon footprint. This will eventually lead to a healthy system and a cleaner planet.

I'm not touting becoming vegetarian or vegan or anything which seems extreme although people with these food habits usually have a lower foobon footprint. However, what I am promoting is eating locally, seasonally and if/where possible organically.

Eating locally produced food grown within a 100mile radius of where you live not only reduces energy used to transport food but also boosts local economy. In the bargain, the food you consume is fresher - better yet, if you have enough space grow your own vegetables and herbs. Even very small apartments have enough space for a herb-box at the very least.

Eating seasonally means you only eat fruits and vegetables which are grown in that season which means you reduce air-miles of those food which are brought in from other parts of the world.

Eating organic means cultivation of food without chemical pesticides and herbicides which is better for the soil. It also means that fresh food tastes better than chemically grown fruit and veg. Additionally, as a side point - eat whole-grain which is not only better for your body but also is less processed. Buy fair-trade where possible as it is a socially-responsible way to eat.

All this brings us to the great meat debate. Is there a greener way to eat meat? It is well known that the production of red-meat is energy intensive and releases methane. Again I would suggest eating locally or buying from a butcher rather than a supermarket which atleast reduces packaging and energy used in the packaging process. With most commercial fish species now endangered, the greenest way to consume seafood is to make sure it is sourced from ecologically managed fisheries. White meat from free-range farms generally have a lower foobon footprint. Finally if you are not inclined to become vegetarian then reduce the amount of meat you eat. The green stuff is better for you anyway!

Finally you are what you eat. And since eating habits are so deeply tied into ecological and biological systems, think before you munch.

to buy or not to buy

Human beings are creatures inclined to excesses and whilst this broadens horizons of endeavour, it also closes off avenues for frugality. As creatures of habit, excess consumerism has become a way of life rather than an occasional luxury. In order to understand the importance that consumerism plays in shaping the global environs, it is essential to understand first, the process of manufacturing.

Every product goes through a cradle-to-grave process - from obtaining raw materials for manufacture to final break-down. The analysis of this process is 'life-cycle assessment' or LCA in eco-parlance. The goal of LCA is to compare the full range of environmental and social damages assignable to products and choose the least burdensome one. It refers to the notion that a fair, holistic assessment requires the estimation of raw material production, manufacture, distribution, use and disposal including all intervening transportation steps necessary or caused by the product's existence.

Needless to say that every product in the market has its impact on the environment - our way forward as a responsible consumer is to recognize that impact and find ways to reduce it. This is where thinking back along the production-line comes useful. Consumer choices play an important role in choosing the ecologically right option in any society. Bear in mind that even if the end product is 'green', the production process of such a product may not be eco-friendly. I will leave out the the nitty-gritty and focus on what can be done to reduce carbon footprints.

Firstly, think twice before you buy. Weigh up your 'needs' versus your 'wants' - the economic incentives include a fatter bank balance! The adage 'reduce, reuse and recycle' will always hold true - finding new ways of using old things not only tests your imagination but goes a long way in reducing wastes.

Secondly, start by making simple choices from the food you eat, to the clothes you wear and your means of transportation. To those of you to whom this is applicable - eat organic, locally produced food which is better for you and the ecosystem. Buy vintage clothes, have a clothes swap with friends and give away old clothes. Rethink your means of transportation - car pool, take the bus, walk.

Thirdly, try and go a step further and extend your eco-goodness to your community and your friends.

Remember that as consumers you have the choice to choose something that is a better option. Exercise that right. Consumers of the world, unite!

its not easy being green...

Everybody knows the environmental problems faced today unless they've been living in caves cut off from civilization. The pundits have waxed eloquent about polar ice melting, ozone layer deteriorating, coral-reefs dying, animals becoming extinct, floods, famine, drought etc etc so much so, that the general public is left wondering what the white noise is all about. The environment has become a specialist subject when it need not be so.

Social responsibility as far as the environment is concerned is left in the hands of 'the big guns' with people left floundering especially in countries where the general public can do more. The movement to protect our natural resources has yet to reach the momentum of a revolution that brings 'power to the people' -- until this happens, these issues cannot be tackled holistically.

The idea is to break it down into bits and realise that the world we live in is intricately connected. Harm to a part is harm to the whole, where the converse is also true. Once this is done, the subject of tackling environmental problems becomes easier to handle. Not everybody can do everything right by the so-called book of Laws of Being Green... Kermit had it right - it's not easy being green! Part of this reason is because there is too much information - this blog aims to address the problem of over-abundance of information and break everything down to bite-sized chunks which are do-able.

Doing a few things right ultimately is better than doing many things wrong or worse, not doing anything at all - apathy is the worst kind of negligence there is. I'd like to leave you with that thought for now...

23 February 2009

the beginning

Not being a particularly good writer or avid blogger, my reasons for starting this blog has no real purpose than to vent some frustrations and bring some issues to the spot-light. Those of you who know me, know that environmental issues are very close to my heart and since I have spent the last six months ruminating, I do have a lot of thoughts. In some small way, I hope that these thoughts will bring to attention some of the pressing issues in the world today. I guess what I'm trying to say is that the first step to getting somewhere is deciding not stay where you are. I'll try and make this as easy-reading, light and funny as possible except when I'm being economic-sy. Thanks for your support. Peace out!